They were simply attempting to get to school.
On September 4, 1957, however, the Arkansas National Guard turned away nine Black students who attempted to enter the all-white Little Rock Central High School. Elizabeth Eckford, 15, was one of the students who found herself surrounded by a mob of white protestors who screamed racial slurs, spit on her, and followed her to the bus stop, where she endured even more vitriol and abuse before the bus arrived.
However, while Little Rock Central High School became the public face of the national desegregation movement, what happened in Topeka, Kansas, was the catalyst. In 1950, a group of Black parents challenged school segregation by enrolling their children in all-white schools closer to their homes rather than all-Black schools farther away, such as Monroe Elementary. Although their requests were denied, their efforts resulted in one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions in history.
Little Rock Central High School and Topeka’s former Monroe Elementary School are now part of the National Park System and well worth a visit. These sites demonstrate how the events that occurred there had far-reaching consequences through videos, historic film footage, firsthand accounts, related exhibits, and ranger-led tours. These locations are also part of the United States Civil Rights Trail.
National Historic Site of Brown v. Board of Education
Today, when you walk into Monroe Elementary, closed as a school in 1975 and now the Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park, one of the first things you see is the opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities by definition are unequal.”
Most visitors start in the auditorium, where videos discuss the history of segregation, resistance to slavery and segregation, the civil rights movement, and the significance of Brown v. Board of Education. The museum itself educates visitors on the events leading up to Brown v. Board of Education and its aftermath, including graphic historical footage from the civil rights struggle. Protest songs by Bob Dylan, Public Enemy, Bob Marley, and others are featured on radio stations. A kindergarten class is also depicted as it would have appeared at Monroe Elementary in the early 1950s.
“The significance of this building is to demonstrate the similarities of Black and white schools that allowed the NAACP to directly challenge segregation,” said Park Ranger Preston Webb.
Putting together a case for Brown v. Board of Education
Linda Brown, a Topeka student, grew up in a mixed neighbourhood with both Black and white friends. Instead of being able to attend the all-white school near her home, she was forced to attend Monroe Elementary, a much farther away all-Black school.
The NAACP recruited 13 families to enrol their children in white schools, including the Browns. All were denied admission, which resulted in a district court lawsuit that they lost.
The NAACP then appealed to the Supreme Court, hoping to overturn a decision from 1896 that ruled separate facilities for whites and African Americans did not violate equal protection rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The doctrine of “separate but equal” had emboldened Jim Crow laws, legitimising racial discrimination and the segregation of everything from parks and drinking fountains to restaurants and neighbourhoods. It also resulted in poor education for Black children, particularly in the South.