Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The View from Topeka

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The View from Topeka

Article excerpt

Brown plaintiffs, local officials recall victories won, declare battles that remain to be fought.

It's a little-known fact, but, 50 years ago, the junior high and high schools of Topeka, Kan., were integrated - though in name only. Fear was the order of the day at the high school, where an African American assistant superintendent by the name of Harrison Caldwell roamed the halls as the "White folks' enforcer," ensuring that African American and White students didn't fall into casual conversations, keeping the sports teams and dances segregated, herding the Black children into separate assemblies.

"There was a 'White' bell and a 'nigger' bell," recalls Nancy Todd Noches, now 63, of those assemblies. "The 'White' bell rang first," calling the children into the school auditorium. Then came the "nigger" bell, calling the students into a separate room where they would hear school announcements.

Fifty years later, Harrison Caldwell and the fear and loathing his reign inspired are little more than bitter memories. And the teachers, students and administrators of Topeka's Unified School District 501 are swept up in a whirlwind of conversations, art and essay contests, and other special programs leading up to a huge community event: the May 17 dedication of the Brown V. Board of Education National Historic Site on the grounds of Monroe Elementary, the most prominent of the four segregated elementary schools serving Black children in those long-ago days.

President Bush is expected to attend that ceremony, and other signs of progress are many and visible in Topeka. According to a study by Harvard's Civil Rights Project, Kansas is one of the most desegregated school environments in the nation, with 54 percent of African American students attending majority White schools - only Kentucky and Washington state have higher levels of school integration.

In Topeka proper, USD 501 is on its second African American superintendent, W.L. "Tony" Sawyer, an educator with a national reputation gained leading his downtown Manhattan school district through the difficult period following the destruction of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. The system's magnet schools, established following a 1979 court case that questioned whether systemwide segregation had truly been eliminated, are by and large a success story. Indeed, notes Sawyer, "out of 35 schools in the system, there are only four that we are concerned about in terms of integration."

But concerns about the achievement gap linger, he admits. "African American and Hispanic data are still not on parity with the White data - and at the same time, I think we can do more to improve White data," he explains.

And for at least two of the plaintiffs involved in the original Brown decision - Noches, whose mother was the secretary of the NAACP and a plaintiff during that historic battle, and Cathy Carper Sawyer, who actually testified in federal district court when the original case was heard - there's a gnawing uncertainty about what was actually gained when the Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision on May 17, 1954.

GALVANIZING A COMMUNITY

Noches and Carper Sawyer, no relation to the superintendent, were the same age - nine - and "best buddies" when the local chapter of the NAACP determined it was time to take a stand against what was happening in the Topeka schools.

Noehes clearly recalls the issue that galvanized her mother, Lucinda Todd, a teacher who had to quit her post when she married: It was reading in the local paper about a spring concert of instrumental music in which all 18 Topeka schools would be participating.

"Well, my mother knew there were actually 22 schools, so that meant there was no instrumental music being offered at the four Black schools," Noehes says.

Immediately, Lucinda Todd got on the phone and, after hitting dead end after dead end, was finally referred to Caldwell. His reply - that the Black children in Topeka "didn't want instrumental music" - so infuriated her that she mounted a successful campaign to have instrumental instruction added to the curriculum. …

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