#OnThisDay: Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, 1954

The recent “leak” that the United States Supreme Court is on track to abolish the 1973 landmark decision Roe v Wade should stand as a wake-up call to all Americans.

Even a 49-year-old Supreme Court decision that has stood the test of time and numerous challenges, can be undone by five Supreme Court Associate Justices who claimed under oath before Congress that they had no intention of voting to undo that 1973 Court decision.

This begs the question, “What comes next? What other US Supreme Court decisions will be wiped away by this Court which was “stacked” by our former president and the radical “right” in Congress?

If I just “stepped on your toes,” so be it.

Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, 1954

This brings me to the topic of today’s blog post, which I chose months ago because it is the anniversary of another landmark US Supreme Court decision, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka. It was 68 years ago today that the Court published its unanimous decision on that case, which made it illegal to have separate public school systems based on race.

Photo credit: CDC on unspash.com

Until Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, it was legal for states to have “separate but equal” school systems for the different races. Everyone knew there was nothing equal about them, but they were legal in the eyes of the law.

The Brown v Board of Education of Topeka decision overturned the 1896 US Supreme Court case, Plessy v Ferguson. Plessy v Ferguson is proof that the US Supreme Court can make terrible mistakes. That decision ruled that having “separate but equal” school systems for each racial group was all right, and now it was deemed legal under the U.S. Constitution.

I grew up in the racially-segregated South. Before you get too puffed up about being from one of the other sections of the United States, though, take a moment to consider your childhood. Segregation might not have been mandated where you lived, but were your community and schools racially-integrated prior to the 1960s?

In a recent conversation with a friend from the Midwest, I said that our public schools here in Cabarrus County, NC were integrated when I was in the seventh grade. That was 1965. The person I was talking to made an interesting remark: “I lived in a non-segregated state, but I didn’t go to school with black students until high school. I lived in a farming community and there just weren’t any black people.”

Since I also grew up in a farming community, I found it strange that there weren’t a mix of white people and black people where she grew up. It was interesting to hear her perspective on the issue.

To our more-enlightened 21st century minds, it seems ridiculous that prior to Brown v Board of Education of Topeka it was legal to have racially-segregated public school systems. Since I was born in 1953, 1954 doesn’t seem very long ago. (Please stop rolling your eyes. If you don’t already understand, you will someday.)

The dual school systems didn’t disappear overnight – not by long shot. They continued here in Cabarrus County until the beginning of the 1966-67 school year. The previous school year, students had the option of attending the school not designated for their race. Few students chose to do that. For instance, in the previously all-white school of 1,000 students that I attended, only three black students chose to enroll in 1965. Looking back on it, I can’t imagine the courage it took for them to do so.

The following school year, the previously all-black schools in the county were closed. The buildings weren’t even used! I believe that’s proof in and of itself that the school board members knew that previously all-black schools weren’t on par with the previously all-white schools. Or, perhaps they knew that most white parents wouldn’t want their children assigned to those previously all-black schools. They carried a stigma which was based on racial bias and a deep-seated prejudice.

What a luxury the school board had then to let school buildings sit empty. It was just a couple of years before the county’s population started growing so fast that the school board was never again able to build schools fast enough to keep up.

The mid-1960s were volatile years as school desegregation took place. Southern states were held up by the national media as a backward place where white people resented black people and wanted their schools kept separate. That’s what we were told and we didn’t know any better until race riots broke out in Boston in September 1974 when the public schools there were ordered to desegregate.

In conclusion

In light of this history and what I read last week in Viola Davis’ memoir, Finding Me, I’m left to conclude that people everywhere are prejudiced against people who don’t look like they do.

We see racial profiling and discrimination all over the United States. Housing redlining takes place every day as mortgage lenders find ways to disguise such practices which limits where people of color can purchase homes. Every time I think this no longer takes place, investigative reporters uncover proof that I’m wrong.

I’ve come to realize that the desegregation of public schools didn’t always translate into equal opportunity. Students of all races and economic backgrounds experience different levels of support and nurture at home. Those of us who grew up in happy homes were blissfully unaware that some of our fellow students were subjected to abuse and neglect in their homes. Teachers — knowingly or unknowingly — bring their own prejudices into the classroom. So do students. It’s human nature, and it’s something we all need to be aware of as we interact with one another in our daily lives. You don’t know what the other person might be going through in his or her personal life.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have one or more good books to read this week.

Take time for a hobby, family, and friends.

Remember the people of Ukraine.

Janet

A Wake-Up Call from Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“Find Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on PBS

I’ve enjoyed the various television series Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has done on PBS (the Public Broadcasting System in the United States.) With my interest in genealogy, I’ve especially enjoyed his “Finding Your Roots” series where he (and his assistants) do a thorough genealogical search for well-known Americans. Many times, the findings are surprising.

In my blog post last Monday, https://janetswritingblog.com/2019/06/03/4-or-5-books-i-read-in-may-2019/ , I wrote about the books I read in May. I mentioned reading the first two chapters of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s new book, Stony the Road:   Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.

Stony the Road:   Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and The Rise of Jim Crow, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The events and facts Dr. Gates included in his book were not in the history textbooks of my youth. This period in our nation’s history was omitted from our textbooks, as were the dark decades which followed in which “Jim Crow” laws were enacted and strictly enforced. All this was swept under the rug and not talked about. The precious little I was taught about the Reconstruction Era could be summed up as, “After the Civil War the ‘carpetbaggers’ from “up North” came down here to tell us what to do.” This always had negative connotations. I grew up in North Carolina.

As a lover of history, even at a young age, I lamented the fact that every year in school we’d study the years up to the end of the American Civil War, the school year would end, and the same thing would happen the next year. It always came across as a lack of time to study anything that happened after that war but, with the perspective I’ve gained in the last several years, I now wonder if this was part of a grand design by the State of North Carolina. Perhaps it was by intention that we never studied the Reconstruction Era.

A snapshot of my school years

So you’ll know the background from which I speak, here are the highlights of my school years as far as race goes: I attended an all-white public school through the sixth grade; racial desegregation was optional in 1965 when I was in the seventh grade (meaning there were three children from a black family who desegregated our school of grades 1-12 with around 1,000 students); the historic black public schools in our county were closed at the end of my seventh grade year, so the schools were completely racially-integrated thereafter.

Can you imagine being one of just three students of color in a school of 1,000 white students? I cannot imagine how Carolyn Morris and her two siblings felt. I also cannot imagine how all the black students in our county felt the following year when their schools were closed and they had no choice but to attend the schools that had preciously been all-white. It was a blessing that five of the six county high schools were consolidated in 1967 into two new high schools, so Central Cabarrus High School and Northwest Cabarrus High School were never racially-segregated.

Back to Dr. Gates’ book

From Dr. Gates’ book I learned in greater detail than I had before that great strides were made for racial integration during Reconstruction; however, “Jim Crow” laws started popping up all over the country (yes, even in The North) to squelch that progress. One fact that epitomizes the century after the American Civil War is that the University of South Carolina was racially-integrated after the War, but then laws were instituted to prohibit black students. The university wasn’t desegregated again until 1963.

The most important thing I learned as a writer

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and The Rise of Jim Crow, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The most important thing I learned as a writer from reading Dr. Gates’ book is about the use of “Plantation Dialect” in fiction. It is something I have wrestled with in the years I’ve written and re-written my manuscript for The Spanish Coin/The Doubloon. With every revision I’ve deleted words of dialect. I had it down to just a couple of words (nawsuh for No, sir; Yessum for Yes, ma’am) by the time I read Dr. Gates’ book. Now I realize how that use of dialect, no doubt, comes across to an African-American reader.

As a white Southerner, I don’t like it when someone mocks my accent. I’m proud of my accent, but to see it overdone in spoken or written word is demeaning.

I’m fascinated by the regional accents in the United States. It’s a subject I’d like to study. I think these regional accents are a beautiful warp and weft in the fabric of our nation. If we all spoke just alike, life would be boring.

In next Monday’s blog post, I plan to delve more deeply into this subject as Dr. Gates’ book prompted me to do additional research about the use of dialect and accents in fiction. Learning to write fiction is a journey.

Since my last blog post

For a variety of reasons, I’ve made only scant progress on my manuscript for The Doubloon; however, what I’ve learned about the use of accent and dialect in fiction is far more important than my novel’s word count.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Things We Cannot Say, by Kelly Rimmer and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

Thank you for reading my blog. You could have spent the last few minutes doing something else, but you chose to read my blog.

Let’s continue the conversation

What is your experience in writing or reading fiction in which dialect and accent were overdone? Have you noticed an evolution in how dialect and accent are handled in novels?

Janet