Friday, June 10, 2016

Brown vs. The Board of Education Historical Site

When we were in Topeka we visited the Brown vs. The Board of Education Historical Site. This is a cool museum run by the National Parks Service and is located in Monroe School, an beautiful old African American elementary school.
The building feels familiar because it is so much like old schools all over. The same windows and floors and porcelain drinking fountains.
One room has been set up as a typical kindergarten classroom in the 1950's, with small tables and chairs, a sand table, wooden blocks, a piano.
That was when kindergarten was all about playing and learning social skills. I wish today's kindergartens were more like this.
But this building isn't about nostalgic classrooms. The auditorium and other first floor rooms are filled with information about segregation of schools and the long, hard battle of integration.
There were displays that explained the history of the Brown case and about other court battles. There was information on life under Jim Crow, on the segregation of schools, on the Civil Rights Movement, on the challenges of integration, on the battles still being fought over race and gender in schools.
The displays were well thought out and very moving.
And the quotes on the walls still apply to today.
Looking at all of the photographs and listening to short videos of what it was like to be involved in this part of our history was deeply moving. At one point, I sat on a bench surrounded by photos of gorgeous black children and I thought about how hard their parents had fought for them to go to a good school. About how Asian and Hispanic parents in other parts of the country fought for their children, too. About how the bravery and sacrifice of those parents and children paved the way for my own daughters to receive a good education without battles or even questioning. About how those parents worked so hard to pass laws that allow my interracial family to even exist. I had to wipe away tears before I could move on.
I cried again when I reached this face. Ruby Bridges, the 6 year old who first integrated her New Orleans elementary school, all alone. She was one of the bravest children I have ever heard of and is one of our family's great heroes.

Probably the most powerful and disturbing displays in the whole museum was a sort of hallway, with a life sized picture of Elizabeth Eckford and the other black students who integrated a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas at each end. Visitors walked through the tunnel-like hall while giant screens ran actual footage of anti-integration protesters screaming and hurling insults, politicians pounding their fists and yelling, and newscasters reading off headlines about segregation battles.
Walking that twenty foot hallway was terrifying, even when you knew it wasn't real. It was a disturbing and profoundly moving experience. The girls talked repeatedly about how frightened and uncomfortable that hall made them feel. We all gained enormous respect for the unimaginable bravery of the black students who went to school every day in such circumstances.
Our nation, both historically and currently, holds up the rich and the powerful as people to admire. Politicians. Generals. Rock stars. Television personalities. Business magnates. These are the people who get the media attention and the acclaim. But I am convinced that the true heroes of our country are the faces in the displays in that old school in Topeka. The judges and lawyers, parents and children who worked so hard and endured such hatred to make our country better for everyone, no matter their color. These are the people that I admire, the history I want to share with my children. I don't care if my girls grow up to be astronauts or brain surgeons or wildly successful business leaders. But I do hope they grow up to be as strong and courageous as Ruby Bridges and Elizabeth Eckford and the parents of Linda Brown and that they continue to help justice flow like water.

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