For Predominantly Black Colleges

Article excerpt

Elaine Jones was a 10-year-old in Norfolk's Liberty Park Elementary School when the decision came down 40 years ago today. Naturally, she didn't understand the full implications of Brown vs. Board of Education, she recalled the other day.

"I expected that we would get better books instead of the hand-me-down ones from the white schools, and I thought I might have a chance to learn about white children, with whom I'd never interacted. I don't know exactly what I anticipated, but I was certain the decision was something special."

She still is, albeit from the perspective of director-counsel of the Legal Defense Fund, whose lawyers, led by the late Thurgood Marshall, brought the case that ended official segregation of America's public schools.

"I know people are talking about the failure of Brown to do all the things we expected it to do, and the truth is, it's been a rough ride" she said. "But as Thurgood used to say, `I've been beaten and pilloried, but I'm still an optimist.' And I still believe this was a voyage on which we had to embark."

She is, however, less certain than she once was as to where the ship is - or ought to be - headed.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that, by a quirk of timing, the 40th anniversary of Brown coincides with the resumption of a legal case that threatens the survival of several historically black colleges and universities. That case, Fordice vs. Ayers, is in one sense a desegregation case like the hundreds of desegregation cases brought in the aftermath of the Brown decision. But the plaintiffs - and Elaine Jones - would like a different outcome than the Legal Defense Fund usually has sought.

The routine has been to prove segregation, legal or de facto, and then ask the court for relief - typically busing, consolidation of school districts, pairing of black and white schools - some method for reducing the racial isolation of black students.

It's a routine of which Jones, the product of segregated public education, generally has approved.

But she is also a product of predominantly black Howard University, where she earned her undergraduate degree before studying law at the University of Virginia. She loved Howard, found it an oasis of intellectual and social comfort, and sees nothing wrong with the fact that its enrollment is overwhelmingly black. …