Monroe Elementary Receives Federal Recognition. Again.
By Guest Writer Frank Barthell
How does a 95 year old former school building in Topeka, Kansas become one just 57 National Historical Parks in the entire country? It’s a timely question. On May 17, we observed the anniversary of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision: Oliver L. Brown, et al., versus the Board of Education of Topeka, often referred to as Brown v. Board.
“Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe it does,” states Chief Justice Earl Warren in the court’s unanimous decision.
Monroe Elementary, center stage in that decision, closed in 1975 due to declining enrollment. Congress designated it a national historic site in 1992. Now 30 years later, Monroe has just been named a National Historical Park, one of just 57 in the entire country.
Oliver Brown’s 9-year old daughter, Linda, was a student at Monroe, one of the four segregated schools in Topeka. As part of an intricate judicial strategy to erase the doctrine of “separate but equal,” Brown joined 12 other Black families in an attempt to enroll their children into an all-white public elementary school. The school district refused the request; the Black parents sued. The Supreme Court folded four similar lawsuits, from Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina and Washington, DC., into one trial. Sites in those states were just added to the National Park System “to help us to more fully tell the story of the struggle to end school segregation,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.
Monroe Elementary was selected for this lawsuit as the school whose facilities and quality of education were considered on par with Topeka’s white elementary schools. This evidence was critical for the civil rights lawyers who brought the case to the nation’s highest court.
Nicholas Murray is a park ranger at the historical park. He presents the case from a child’s perspective. “With a school like Monroe, a nice school for African-American students, the legal team was able to prove that schools are inherently unequal. Essentially what it’s teaching kids is that at a young age, if you’re segregated, something must be wrong with one group, something must be right with another group, and that kind of philosophy will stick with them until they die.”
The park offers a Junior Ranger Program, designed for K-6 children. “Working with teachers, we gear each program to an appropriate age level. For kindergarten, first and second grade we talk about segregation, focusing more on what you can do to make sure everyone’s included. We have blocks to help explain the concept of sharing and learning to live in a society where everyone is treated fairly,” explains Murray
Nullifying the “separate but equal” doctrine didn’t simply apply to public education, Murray explains. It unlocked court challenges to segregation in many public facilities. Historians maintain that Brown v. Board kick started the modern day civil rights movement. “That’s a positive legacy of the decision,” says Murray.
There’s a short hallway in the Monroe building, just 15 feet in length. In the “Hall of Courage” visitors are surrounded by looped archival film clips and sound. Images of the 1960s civil rights activists brutalized by police with batons and firehoses. White citizens in the south scream into the faces of young Black children escorted by federal troops into a formerly all-white elementary school. This decades-long pushback against desegregation is, sadly, another legacy of Brown v. Board.
Nearly all Americans remember these images, but they are more painful to some visitors than others. “We sometimes see Black families coming here,” says Murray, “and the kids respond to this imagery asking, ‘why did they hate me?’ But many times that’s why parents bring their kids here. They are trying to talk about a shared history. This is the place where they wanted to learn about all that.”
The Brown v. Board site re-opened in December 2021 at the end of the COVID lockdown. Since then, Murray has spoken with families posing new sets of questions. More than 18 months after the murders of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and countless other innocent Black Americans, Murray recalls one family asking, “why are we still dealing with these issues today? We made a special stop here on our vacation because we wanted to understand how we even got to this point.”
“This is not just a historic site,” Murray reminds visitors. “This place remains overwhelmingly relevant to what’s going on now.” Children are particularly receptive to this message, he explains. “Working with school groups, seeing their excitement and openness to social changes, gives me a positive hope for the future.”
The Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park is located at 1515 SE Monroe Street in Topeka. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.