Where the barrier was broken

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June 12, 2010 - 12:00 AM

SAFE BASE tours historic Topeka site

TOPEKA — While segregation didn’t start in Kansas, the state played a role in ending the discriminatory practice, Iola students learned Thursday on a summer SAFE BASE field trip to the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Landmark in Topeka.
A sequence of video displays told the story of 13 parents, “mostly housewives,” who challenged the practice of segregating elementary schools by race in the city.
“Are we to say to the world we are free — except for the Negroes,” asked President John F. Kennedy in one bit of video footage.
Third-grader Abby Roettgen, taking in some of the displays, observed “there was a little girl who lived only a couple blocks from a white school and her dad didn’t get why she couldn’t go to that school rather than ride a bus all the way across town.”
That father, Oliver Brown, would lend his name to the suit that would go from Kansas courts to the United States Supreme Court, ultimately ending — at least legally — the practice of “separate but equal” that had kept the country racially divided since the Emancipation Proclamation had ended slavery.
In a talk by Park Ranger Joan Wilson, students learned that segregation continued unabated in many places in the country, even after the Supreme Court had decided Brown.
“It took until 1974 for some schools in Florida to integrate,” she told them. Worse still was Natchez, Miss., said Park Ranger Linda Rosenblum, who had grown up there.
“We had neighborhood schools but they were largely segregated,” she noted. “They did not consolidate their schools” — merging what were effectively all black and all white schools — “until 1989.”
That was a full 20 years after the Supreme Court had ruled on another case, Holmes County vs. Board of Education, that legally implemented a “one-school system,” requiring transportation be provided so that schools could be integrated as required by the 1954 Brown v. Board decision.
Wilson told the students that Topeka had been seen as a test case for both segregation and desegregation.
The state, by law, could allow segregation under the “separate but equal” philosophy.
“The schools here were actually very good,” Wilson said of the segregated system. “They were funded, they hired good teachers.” But for parents like Zelma Henderson, one of the plaintiffs in the original case, good was not good enough.
“I grew up in Western Kansas,” which was not segregated, Henderson said in a video shown to the assembly. “I was used to having equal rights and I went to having half rights, or no rights at all” after moving to Topeka, she said.
“I knew my children would learn from others how to get along with people,” and grading people’s worth by race was not a belief she wanted her children to have, Henderson said.
“It didn’t matter how much education you had,” she said. As long as opportunities were based upon race, the system was unfair.
Courts agreed, but Kansas opted not to change the law. It was then that, with the help of the NAACP, five suits challenging boards of education around the country for practices related to segregation were combined in a Supreme Court challenge.
“If they never changed it,” one student asked Wilson, “would it be the same today?”
“It would be worse, I think,” she answered thoughtfully. Wilson pointed out that, under segregation, the SAFE BASE group, sporting children of various races, could not have sat together.
“Relations would be very tense,” she said.
For there to be lasting change, she said, “First you change the law. Then you, hopefully, change the heart.”

TO CAP OFF the day, students were also treated to a guided tour of the Topeka Zoo. Former SAFE BASE employee Claire Clark, who had once been a Topeka Zoo volunteer, regaled students with background stories about some of the animals.
“We had to separate the porcupines because they kept quilling the sloths,” she told the group.
As for Prickles the porcupine, Clark said, “his favorite treat is Ritz crackers.”
Clark told the students the best time to view animals at any zoo is early morning, when they have just been let out of their night enclosures.
Sometimes, even the cages can’t keep animals in, she noted.
“One time someone snipped open the eagle exhibit, but they can’t fly,” she said of the regal birds.
All Topeka’s eagles have been injured or crippled in the wild, she noted. The federally protected species can only be kept by permit, Clark said. The zoo is “like a rehabilitation program” for the birds, she said.
The zoo’s bobcat, Johnson, also has had his cage cut, Clark noted. “He used to be a pet,” she said. Confiscated, possibly due to mistreatment, the bobcat is happy at the zoo, she said, and never has left his cage.
Most amazing to the group was the zoo’s rainforest enclosure.
In the large enclosed habitat, animals are uncaged. Fruit bats furled and unfurled wings, looking like large brown cocoons when folded. Bright russet birds chased each other through a maze of children’s legs. And flamingos posed in sunrise-colored splendor as little eyes bugged out at their brilliant plumage.
By the end of the day, the children had learned much about their planet-mates, both human and animal.

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