Panel revisits landmark Brown v. Board case

May 12, 2004|GARY MOYERS

Approximately 100 people turned out Tuesday evening to hear a panel of educators and legal experts talk about the ramifications of the historic 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education decision by the United States Supreme Court.

May 17 marks the 50th anniversary of that ruling, which struck down the premise of "separate but equal" public school systems and jump-started educational integration. The forum was organized to commemorate that anniversary, and to allow participants to speak of their experiences during the integration process of the Danville schools.

While several of the panelists, all with Danville ties, spoke of the progressive nature of integration locally, especially during the late 1950s and early 1960s, some said the lasting legacy of Brown vs. Board of Education is to serve as reminder of tasks undone.

"We have progressed, and made great strides, in the way we interact as races,"

aid Robert Trumbo, a Danville student during integration who now teaches in the system. "But we still have a long way to go. There are things not yet accomplished."


Current Danville Superintendent Bob Rowland echoed that sentiment. "We're still a work in progress," he said. "We have accomplished much, yet we still have an achievement gap. The system is not reaching everyone, and we have to take a long, hard look at that. We're in a state of denial in this country with respect to education. We're looking at a society who has become disengaged with the educational process, particularly among minorities. We say, 'if the students will just work hard, they'll do okay.' But they're not doing okay, and we have to find the reasons why and address them with solutions."

Pierce Lively, a retired judge from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals who also served as president of Bate Middle School PTO, provided the legal background for the case and said the decision was a landmark accomplishment.

"The Supreme Court threw out 50 years of constitutional interpretation, but it did not outlaw segregation," he said. "It only addressed state-imposed segregation, but it did not address segregation in the private sector. What it also accomplished was to inspire lawmakers to attack other forms of segregation. "It is hard to overstate the importance of Brown vs. Board," he said. "It probably did more to change the lives of Americans and the attitudes of Americans than any other decision of the 20th century."

Helen Fisher Frye, who taught at both Bate and Danville high schools during the integration process, said one big loss to both systems was in the number of African-American teachers.

"We were not allowed to go beyond a certain point in higher education in Kentucky, and for that reason, many highly qualified teachers at Bate were lost when we joined the Danville school system," she said. "They were role models and still are role models. It hurt us, and it hurts today that we have so few African-Americans who take the initiative to become teachers."

"(Integration) opened up a lot of doors for us, but we suffered some losses," said Trumbo. "When we left Bate High School, we lost our tradition. We lost a lot of our good teachers. We lost our positions of leadership because we were not allowed to become leaders. I was the first black male to be hired in the school system, and that was in 1972. From 1964 until 1972 there was not a black male teacher in our school system."

One reason minority teacher numbers are still low, Trumbo said, is that doors opened after Brown vs. Board. "A majority of blacks had the doors opened in other areas and they do not teach because of the pay," he said. "We are seeing a movement of blacks back to the teaching profession, but ours is a society driven by money as a measure of success."

Ken Snowden, principal at Bate Middle School during the integration process, said the demand during the initial stages of integration for black male teachers was great, especially in the larger school systems. "We were all looking, and the bigger systems snapped them up," he said.

Lively addressed an audience question about a current trend toward voluntary segregation by saying the trend for whites to move out of city neighborhoods into the suburbs, especially in the North, has created segregated school systems 50 years after Brown vs. Board.

"It's been called 'white flight,' and it has resulted in southern schools being much more integrated than those in the northern part of the country," he said.

Trumbo said schools are the most integrated institutions in the country. "Sunday mornings in America are the most segregated times we see," he said. "People still go to their own churches, typically segregated by race. In that way, the schools have led the way for us."

Trumbo made a point of thanking his teachers in the Bate system, saying they prepared him to walk into an integrated school and excel.

"Bate had innovative teachers who went beyond the textbooks," he said. "We were well prepared by our teachers, and the process went very, very smoothly in Danville. In 1964, when we all walked in that door to that school together, it was okay. It worked, and it was because of the teachers at both systems. "One of the things I love about being a Danvillian is that we work together, and we solve our problems together."

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