70 years after Brown v. Board of Education: 'No kid should ever be left behind'

Rosie Nguyen Image
Friday, May 17, 2024
70 years after Brown v. Board of Education: 'No kid should ever be left behind'
While Brown v. Board of Education transformed the direction of education in our nation, educators and historians think more work needs to be done.

HOUSTON, Texas -- Friday marked the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that sparked the end of racial segregation in public schools throughout the country. While it changed the landscape of education in our country, historians and educators believe there's more work to be done.

Pearline Perkins just celebrated her 90th birthday last week, but her mind is still sharp. Born in 1934 and raised in Slocum, Texas, she remembers what it was like being a student at all-Black schools in East Texas during the 1930s and 1940s.

"Everyone was kept separate. We used separate bathrooms. We sat separately from white kids in the classroom. We weren't allowed to use the same books," Perkins said. "It wasn't until high school that many of the Black kids began to question things. These are institutions that wanted to teach us suppression and make us believe that we were less than."

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To understand why this was happening, we have to go back to the end of the Civil War in 1865. Resistance to the abolishment of slavery during the Reconstruction Era resulted in Jim Crow laws. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that these racial segregation laws did not violate the Constitution as long as public facilities were "separate, but equal."

But Dr. Matthew Washington, who teaches history at Prairie View A&M University, explained that public schools were everything but equal for Black students during that time.

"Separate was never equal. Separate was usually a second class, if not third-class status for African Americans and then a first-class status for whites," Washington said. "African Americans had underfunded facilities, lack of transportation, less school supplies, and not as much money allocated in comparison to white students."

This was something Perkins says she saw first-hand, not just when she was a student, but also as an educator. After graduating from high school, Perkins moved to the Greater Houston area to attend college and begin teaching in the 1950s for North Forest and Houston independent school districts.

"White parents didn't want, for the most part, their kids to go to school with Black kids. I think some of them welcomed Black educators, but many did not," Perkins said. "When our Black students excelled academically, Black teachers were accused of cheating on test scores. The district constantly tested and retested."

Around the same time, the NAACP filed several lawsuits to challenge these segregation laws in public schools, which culminated in Brown v. Board of Education. Linda Brown's father took legal action after she was denied from going to an all-white school in Topeka, Kansas, that was just four blocks from her home. Instead, she was forced to take a dangerous walk across railroad tracks and a bus ride to an all-Black school.

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"These are just some examples to demonstrate further the ubiquity or how pervasive this racial prejudice system was," Washington said. "An important point many argued at the time was about this concept of gradualism, where integration would gradually happen over time. We saw many civil rights activists who said it's been almost 100 years since the end of slavery, and they've waited long enough. No more gradualism. They need immediate integration. It starts now."

In a rare move on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, undoing decades of existing precedent. However, just like after the Civil War, there was still a lot of resistance and slow compliance to integrating schools, especially in the South. In fact, it took Houston Independent School District 30 years to officially desegregate.

"Historians use a framework known as massive resistance to integration that was seen throughout the south, especially the deep south. We saw resistance and efforts to stall integration from politicians to local organizations like the White Citizens Council," Washington said.

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As Perkins reflects on the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, she's grateful for the progress made to ensure equality and equity for students of all backgrounds. However, she believes there's still more work to do.

"No kid should ever be left behind. We cannot do it if we're fighting each other. But together, we can make it better and that's what I'm totally looking for. A better America for everybody," Perkins said.

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