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Pod Corner: Brown v. Board of Education

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Seventy years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. It was the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. What's less well-known, though, is the integration lawsuits that laid the groundwork in the years leading up to Brown v. Board of Education. From the KCUR podcast A People's History Of Kansas City, Mackenzie Martin reports on an integration lawsuit in Kansas led by women five years earlier.

MACKENZIE MARTIN, BYLINE: September 1948 marked the beginning of a new school year in South Park, Kan. Like normal, the teachers at Walker Elementary School lined up to greet their pupils. Unlike normal, only two students reported to class. See, at the time, the community was locked in a heated lawsuit with the local school board. The chief complaint was major disparities between this school, which was for Black children, and the school three blocks away for white children only.

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ESTHER BROWN: Incidentally, to really describe this school, it was almost unbelievable.

MARTIN: This is Esther Brown, a white Jewish activist back then.

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BROWN: Water would accumulate in the basement that would be 2 1/2 to 3 or 4 feet high. The children in that school were always having the flu and the colds and the pneumonia.

MARTIN: South Park Elementary School, on the other hand, was newly built with $90,000 of local tax dollars, and it had nine teachers to Walker's two teachers. Unlike Walker, South Park offered kindergarten, a sizable auditorium and a school lunch program. These inequalities were a clear violation of the separate-but-equal doctrine that allowed schools and other places to remain segregated back then. For years, the Walker parents asked the school board for substantial improvements to their school, with minimal results.

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BROWN: They were told that they didn't have any money, but that they would give them a stop sign and a mailbox.

MARTIN: A stop sign and a mailbox for a two-room school that was regularly overcrowded and flooding.

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BROWN: What I said was, this is wrong, and we're going to do something about it.

MARTIN: Webb v. School District 90 asked the Kansas Supreme Court, in no uncertain terms, for the integration of South Park School. And while they waited, the parents started their own school in private homes. This is why only two children showed up at Walker School in fall in 1948. The 40 or so children who attended the boycott school became known as the Walker Walkouts.

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CORINTHIAN NUTTER: It was a beautiful situation. They provided their living rooms. We fixed it up as near as a classroom as they could.

MARTIN: Corinthian Nutter was one of two Black teachers hired by the boycott school. Previously, she had taught at Walker School, but after she started speaking out, the school board didn't renew her contract.

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NUTTER: Well, I knew I wouldn't have a job, but that was all right. I was trying to help. See?

DAN MARGOLIES: The school district hoped to sort of wear the parents down by attrition.

MARTIN: Journalist Dan Margolies is writing a book about Esther Brown, and he says the school board tried to coax parents back to Walker School during the boycott by offering things like free lunch.

MARGOLIES: They kept that school open in the hope that, you know, some of them would relent and give up and eventually send their kids back there. Most of the parents held firm.

MARTIN: Dan says Kansas was fated to be a battleground state in the fight against segregation. Unlike some other states, Kansas law only permitted segregation in elementary schools and cities of more than 15,000 residents, which made it great for test cases against separate but equal.

MARGOLIES: Towns like South Park, that city was not allowed to segregate students by race because it was a second-class city, but nonetheless, it did so.

MARTIN: The lawsuit got national attention thanks to Black-owned newspapers like the Kansas City Call and the high-profile NAACP lawyers that got involved. The latter, by the way, was all thanks to activist Esther Brown, who was well-known at the time for getting things done.

MARGOLIES: I've seen the reams of correspondence she conducted with NAACP lawyers in which she's taking them to task, excoriating them for, you know, why isn't the branch here in Kansas City doing more?

MARTIN: One of the notable people Esther badgered into helping her was Thurgood Marshall. He hadn't yet been appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, but he was still a pretty big deal as the head of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund.

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BROWN: It's unusual for the NAACP nationally to involve themselves in this kind of a small case. That I was halfway hysterical all the time, I guess they had to.

MARGOLIES: I mean, in many ways, her chutzpah is remarkable.

MARTIN: This is what it was like for everyone leading the charge. The case became unequivocally the most important thing in their lives. The mothers held rummage sales and bake sales to fund the lawsuit and teacher salaries. Esther Brown fundraised all over Kansas, making presentations to local NAACP branches, labor unions and churches. One night, she even made a pitch on stage at a Billie Holiday concert.

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BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) I'll be seeing you.

DELORES LOCKE-GRAVES: It was a beautiful sight when you could see those ladies.

MARTIN: Delores Locke-Graves was 11 years old back then, 1 of 6 young plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

LOCKE-GRAVES: I was just a girl, but I was watching them, you know. Esther Brown was that lady who gave the other Black ladies in the community courage to hold your head up. We're going to lick this case. It's going to come to an end.

MARTIN: Finally, in June 1949, after they boycotted the Walker School for an entire school year, the Supreme Court of Kansas ruled that Black students were legally entitled to attend South Park School. The headline in the Kansas City Call read "Victory Won By Children Who Went On Strike."

MARGOLIES: And the Black students, some 40-plus of them, were admitted to the newly built South Park grade school. And interestingly, that happened without incident. And to the credit of the principal of that school, he welcomed them.

MARTIN: That's amazing. I love that. How did Esther feel after this decision?

MARGOLIES: I think she was jubilant because this long battle at final resulted in a positive outcome. But she was also not one to rest on her laurels. She immediately - she had already before even - began to agitate for the integration of schools across the entire state.

MARTIN: After the South Park victory, Esther Brown and others involved Thurgood Marshall, lawyer Elijah Scott next set their sights on Topeka, Kan., where they helped spearhead Brown v. Board of Education, a collection of five cases where Black children wanted to go to the same schools as white children. Five years later, they won that case, too. And the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that school segregation violated the U.S. Constitution.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: The court said separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

MARTIN: When the community in Topeka gathered a few days after the decision to celebrate, Esther Brown got on the podium and told the crowd, it is the little people like us who bring about such things as Monday's Supreme Court opinion. The most brilliant lawyers couldn't have succeeded but for the help of people like you here tonight.

DETROW: Mackenzie Martin is one of the hosts of the KCUR Studios podcast "A People's History Of Kansas City." You can hear the full episode about the Walker walkouts at kcur.org/peopleshistory. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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