Where School Desegregation Battle Began, Victory Casts a Shadow of Defeat
The New York Times, May 12, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman

TOPEKA, Kan. - In the years before this unprepossessing prairie city became forever linked with the civil rights crusade, Dale Cushinberry was growing up black amid the racial segregation that passed as routine. When he attended movies downtown at the Jayhawk, he climbed into the balcony derisively known as the "crows' nest." He could swim in the best municipal pool only one day a month, the day before the water was drained and replaced.

Young Dale walked past a neighborhood school, which was designated solely for whites, on his long route to an all-black building. Even Topeka High School, which did have an integrated student body, maintained two sets of athletic teams, one for each race, and held two senior proms.

All that started to change on May 17, 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in the school desegregation case that had arisen here, Brown v. Board of Education, unanimously striking down the doctrine of ''separate but equal.'' Today, Mr. Cushinberry, 57, and the Topeka school system represent much of the progress inspired by the Brown decision. The city has integrated every one of its 35 public schools among white, black, and a growing number of Hispanic students. As principal of Highland Park High School, Mr. Cushinberry forms part of a corps of African-American teachers and administrators.

Yet just as Topeka past embodied the ordinary segregation of American society, Topeka present embodies the unfinished agenda and ambiguous legacy of the Brown decision. While the district has succeeded far better than many public school systems in integrating buildings, within those buildings black children languish behind classmates of other races. Moving bodies, as it turned out, did not necessarily improve education.

Mr. Cushinberry presides over a high school in which barely one-third of graduating seniors even take a college-entrance test. Last year, blacks at Highland Park scored in the bottom third nationally on the ACT exams, worse, on average, than not only white classmates but also Hispanics, many of them recent immigrants. On state tests administered last year to the entire Topeka system, blacks lagged behind white, Hispanic, and low-income pupils. Facing new scrutiny under the federal No Child Left Behind Law, Topeka has acknowledged its "achievement gap" and last year recruited a new superintendent, W.L. Sawyer, from New York City, where he had supervised public high schools in Manhattan. Mr. Sawyer already has altered the educational business-as-usual in Topeka -- working 12-hour days, overhauling curriculums, moving to dismiss teachers and expanding successful reading and math programs.

Still, the palpable efforts at improvement here tell only part of the story of Brown's aftermath. What one hears from many black educators and public figures in Topeka is a conviction that integration in the schools was the wrong goal, that the all-black schools of their youth were more demanding of black children than are the diverse schools where such pupils so clearly falter today.

"You have to ask yourself, what did it matter?" Mr. Cushinberry said of Brown. "If you listed the pluses and minuses, there'd be a lot of things on the negative side. The assumption was that black kids could sit next to white kids and become smarter. But what I knew about black schools is that those teachers were you, those principals were you. They saw my parents at church, at the grocery, at the beauty parlor. I couldn't get away with miscreance or subpar performance."

The Rev. E. Bernard Hurd, a prominent lawyer and minister in Topeka, echoed that sentiment. "If I could go back in time," he said one evening in his church office, "I would prefer that it was just the way it was. You had your community. You had a group of dedicated teachers. You had a lot of parental assistance. Now we're doing what we were trying to avoid in the first place -- busing kids to schools, bypassing the neighborhood school. Except that we're doing it to balance the ethnic makeup."

The nostalgia for all-black schools is not unanimous. One of only three surviving Topeka plaintiffs from the Brown case, 84-year-old Zelma Henderson continues to defend its vision of racial integration as the route to educational equality. "The doors have been opened up now and people should make sure to walk through all of them," she said, standing beside a table covered with memorabilia. "I've seen that it's possible."

In the years since the court decision, however, the Topeka schools have collided with social issues and problems more endemic to large cities than the farms, small towns, and suburbs that make up the rest of Kansas. Hispanic enrollment in the 14,000-student system has surpassed 15 percent, while the percentage of whites has dipped below half for the first time. About 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Over the last decade, black and Hispanic gangs from Chicago and Los Angeles have brought crack-dealing and drive-by shootings to this city.

The combination of state and local aid to the schools here leaves Topeka about $500 per pupil below the state average of nearly $7,000. At about $26,400, salaries for first-year teachers are so low that their children would qualify for subsidized school lunches. With a looming deficit of $6 million in an $86 million budget, Topeka has announced cutbacks affecting exactly the sort of programs meant to address the achievement gap -- mandatory summer school and caps on class size.

Such a recitation of woes does not quite capture the larger reality of Topeka since Brown, a certain tacit, passive acceptance of low achievement from black students. Mr. Sawyer has arrived insisting that the social problems of students and their families can no longer be considered the system's excuse. Certain schools, like Ross Elementary, have raised test scores for black children above national goals by determining pupils' weakest skills and addressing them with longer classes and small-group instruction.

That scenario, sadly, remains the exception. Too often, the aspirations are almost heartbreakingly modest.

The main office at Highland Park, for instance, offers brochures about the National Guard, but nothing from colleges. While more than 200 students are enrolled in the ROTC program, the school does not offer advanced placement classes in any subject. In the fall, every student at Highland Park will be required to read four novels a year, which implicitly raises the question of how little has been required up until now.

On his office bulletin board, Mr. Cushinberry keeps snapshots of dozens of former students. Alongside the photos hang the programs from seven funerals -- most of them for students or alumni killed in Topeka's gang warfare. "They're up there for a reason," he said in the days leading up to the Brown anniversary. "We're all going to graduate. The question is from what."

Back to top


Articles by publication > By Subject > Back to Education Articles