Brown Revisited

The Indignity of Distance
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
May 5 2004 4:55 PM

Brown Revisited

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Mini-Lincoln fronts the Kansas Free-State Capitol in Topeka
Mini-Lincoln fronts the Kansas Free-State Capitol in Topeka

Of all Jim Crow's manifold humiliations, the surprise is that its demise derived from something as simple as the indignity of distance. When the unreliable bus service wasn't available, 7-year-old Linda Brown had to walk across town to all-black Monroe instead of being allowed to attend all-white Sumner Elementary, only six blocks from her home. Fallen-away Catholic that I am, I've decided to experience Brown like the Stations of the Cross: I'm going to follow in Linda's footsteps.

The first problem with my plan is that the Browns' home—along with the neighborhood surrounding it—was paved over to make way for a highway. The solution is serendipitous, however. The closest parking space to where the Browns' house used to be is in Ward-Meade Park at 1st and Fillmore, Topeka's version of olde tyme Colonial Williamsburg. It has a one-room schoolhouse from 1881, a general store (1924), a drug store serving soda fountain drinks, a limestone livery stable, a Santa Fe railroad stop, and so on. In other words, Ward-Meade is Topeka history as white people like to imagine it.

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In 1854, Anthony Ward bought 240 acres near the Oregon Trail from James Joseph, a Pottawatomie Indian, who, judging from his name and habit of selling land that rightfully belonged to the Buffalo Spirit, was apparently an early Christian convert. (When I was in grade school, they taught us that "Topeka" was derived from the Pottawatomie word "Ta-pa-ge," meaning, "a great place to grow potatoes." But according to Pottawatomie scholars at Harrah's Prairie Band Casino, a more accurate translation is "20 miles south of a great place to play slots.")

The sign in front of the Wards' first home, a two-room log cabin, says that Anthony's wife, Mary Jane Ward, kept a candle burning in the window at nights to help guide travelers along the nearby Oregon trail to her home. "She is considered the Mother of Topeka." But it is the Wards' second home, an impressive brick and limestone mansion built in 1874, that provides the central "American Dream fulfilled" message of the park.

Normally, I'm a sucker for such pabulum, but I spent the previous evening watching back-to-back episodes of HBO's Deadwood. As I leave the park, I can't help but wonder what exactly the Wards were selling to those lonely travelers that enabled them to get so rich—and whether Mary Jane ever placed any red glass around that candle, and, if so, whether she might not better be remembered as the Madame of Topeka.

The walk from Ward-Meade to the Sumner School at 330 Western Street is the same distance—and very close to the same route—Linda Brown would have traveled if she'd been allowed to attend it. It takes me 10 minutes.

For those with a taste for historical irony, take a bite out of this: Sumner Elementary School was named in honor of Charles Sumner, the 19th century's leading abolitionist. As a lawyer, Sumner ended school segregation in Massachusetts; he was a founder of both the Free Soil and Republican parties; he was the primary sponsor of the 14th Amendment ("equal protection"), upon whose basis the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in Brown; and he was also the only senator ever to be physically attacked by another representative (South Carolina's Preston Brooks) inside Congress, a direct result of his "Crime Against Kansas" speech of 1856.

The light-brick Sumner Elementary was supposed to be an all-black school, but the white parents in the neighborhood claimed it for their children. The fact that Sumner, the school, was central in completing the task to which Sumner, the man, devoted his life is, if not definitive proof, at least tantalizing evidence of a higher power.

My informal guide to the Summer National Historic Site is Ron, who asks me, "Are you here to buy the building?" When I look at him funny, he asks, "Do you have the key at least?"

Sumner is locked. The National Park Service had originally intended to turn both Sumner and Monroe into museums, but the cost of renovating and maintaining two separate facilities was prohibitive. Besides, what kind of exhibits do you place in the all-white school? So the city is stuck with an empty grade school.

Ron is doing all he can to pitch me, still convinced I'm in the market for a segregationist landmark. "Inside it's real nice. It's just the outside that looks bad."

Up close, I can see that the brick has a layer of dirt, and most of the windows are broken or boarded over.

Did you break any of these windows?

"It wasn't me … except for a few," Ron says, practicing his tough-guy voice. "I had to have something to do when I felt the need to thrash something."

Perhaps I should explain. Ron is 10 years old. He and his brother Ray, 12, were playing tennis against the side of the Sumner National Historic Site with a golf ball when I walked up. As thrashers go, Ron isn't very convincing. With round glasses and a freckled face, he looks like a chubby American version of Harry Potter.

So you did all of this?

My skepticism deflates his bad boy persona, causing him to revert to his truer nature: "No, mostly it was the kids in the blue house," Ron says, tattling their names and ages, which I pretend to write down. "They even smoke," he concludes.

While Ray is busy climbing the fence to get the lost golf ball, Ron follows me around the school. He wants to know what I am doing and why I am walking and not driving, so I ask him if he has ever heard of Linda Brown. He hasn't. Because I am curious how long he will last, I launch into a Brown mini-lecture. Ron starts to scratch his back. His pace slows. Right before I lose him, I close with a flourish.

And that is why you have the opportunity to go to school with black kids. Isn't that great, Ron?

"Sure, yeah. I think I hear Ray calling."

I look at my watch. He lasted just under two minutes. As I turn left on 4th Street and head east, Ron remains—One Child Left Behind.

I have a few hours to spare before my tour, so I turn left on Topeka Boulevard and make the fairly long detour over the bridge into North Topeka to see St. Mark's AME, where Oliver Brown preached. After asking around, I find the simple brick church at 801 NW Harrison Street.

One word of caution: If you ring the bell or knock on the door and no one answers, that does not mean there is someone in back who didn't hear you and it is OK to walk inside.

As I stand in the foyer and look at the photos of Oliver and Linda Brown, I hear the faint buzzing of an alarm. I briefly flirt with the Hunter S. Thompson-like possibilities of being arrested for breaking and entering in Oliver Brown's old church before deciding to hightail it out of there. I'm not that gonzo.

Back over the bridge and seemingly safe from Topeka's gran-sancho-eating cops I walk to Linda Brown's old bus stop. The railroad switchyard Linda Brown had to cross, which Oliver Brown specifically cited in his complaint as an unnecessary danger, is still here. The only historical monument, however, is a sign marking 1st and Kansas Avenue as a stop on the Oregon Trail.

Whenever Linda missed her bus—something that happened to me often—or it didn't come, she had to walk south down Kansas Avenue, the heart of Topeka's downtown. I quickly note and pass the Court House at 5th and Kansas, where early decisions in the Brown case were settled, and the law offices of the firm that litigated the Topeka case at 724 1/2 Kansas Avenue.

I'm only a block away, so I dart over to the Kansas State Capitol. In this building, democratically elected leaders worked out Kansas' segregated school policy. Prior to 1954, segregation was limited to grade schools in cities with populations larger than 15,000. It is the minute precision of such laws that baffles me. It was OK for black and white teenagers to attend school together but not pre-teens—unless the town was really small? Jim Crow is as foreign to me as India's caste system.

The Brown Museum is the first I've ever visited with its own mission statement. A sign in the lobby reads, "We hope that you will leave this site with a personal commitment to tolerance, inclusiveness, and equality in your daily life."

The museum's most impressive exhibits are its multimedia offerings. The Education and Justice Gallery has a Hall of Courage, a corridor of flat-screen monitors playing classic clips from the civil rights era. You know them: the dogs, the water hoses, George Wallace screaming, "Segregation Now! Segregation Tomorrow! Segregation Forever!" It's a line that never fails to send a shiver down my spine. Clearly, the goal of the museum is to make that era visceral again, and they've succeeded.

There are also a number of interactive exhibits directed at a younger audience. LaTonya Miller, the National Park Service's public affairs specialist who is serving as my tour guide, expects that schoolchildren will make up the bulk of the 150,000 tourists everyone is predicting will visit Topeka every year. One exhibit involves pushing buttons next to the various institutions you think were segregated—schools, buses, hotels, swimming pools, etc. The trick answer is that all the institutions listed were segregated.

The 50th anniversary will inevitably bring a spate of articles and books about what the Brown decision meant then and what it means today. What I like about the museum is that it leaves these questions unanswered. I proudly offer my "indignity of distance" formulation to LaTonya. She shakes her head, "No, the case was about choice." Because that sounds an awful lot like "vouchers" to me, I try to counter. But LaTonya is not the kind of black woman who readily brooks disagreement. "No, Matt; Brown was about choice."

The truth is, Brown means different things to different people: integration, racial equality, affirmative action, equal opportunity, quotas, busing. For Topekans, one thing it certainly means is that we are now host to a museum we can be proud of, a place that will engage Ron's attention for more than two minutes. As I hike back to my car, I discover something else Brown means: A 7-year-old girl no longer has to walk 55 minutes to and from school because of the color of her skin.

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