When I was a kid, I remember learning about the Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation case in school. It seemed like such an important part of our history, but when I discovered the full name of the case included “The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas” I was shocked the location was so close to my hometown.
While “Brown V. Board” was actually a consolidation of five school segregation cases from several states, the Supreme Court considered them as a whole as a test of the “Separate but Equal” doctrine that had ruled the culture for several decades.
The experiences of people in Topeka were important precisely because Topeka was NOT in the deeply segregated south. Since Kansas came into the union on a banner of freedom, justices were offered the opportunity to consider the issue in a town where separated children received quality schooling on both sides of the racial divide. This isolated the issue at hand, and opened the door for ruling that “separate” was inherently unequal.
Today, it is hard to image an America with the blatant segregation on display in this museum, but I guess that’s a testament to the power and importance of the decision. Perhaps that’s why the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site is the only unit of the National Parks system named after a Supreme Court case.
The site is housed in the former Monroe School, one of four Topeka schools segregated for all-black students in the early 1950s. It gives you a chance to walk back in time through a segregated America. The galleries are housed in former classrooms, and the school’s gymnasium has been turned into a cool multimedia presentation room that presents information about race relations in our country. Visitors are shown a time of turmoil and change, and asked to consider how these issues are still playing out today.
Recently, my family visited on a Saturday afternoon to enjoy “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney’s first attempt to feature an African American Princess in a feature-length film. It was a part of a movie series for Black History Month. We explored the galleries after the movie and walked past a picture of an all-white classroom that was taken at my son’s elementary school during the segregation era. The corresponding all-black classroom was in a photo above it. While both classrooms are neat and tidy, my husband pointed out that the desks in the all-black classroom were clearly decades older than those in the white-classroom. Looking at those pictures was a great way to personally connect to the lessons of this historic site.
I think this site is pretty family friendly. My son loved the Junior Ranger badge he was able to earn. The content may require some parental explanations, but there are plenty of hands-on ways to help keep the kids engaged. Since the site is fairly small, it can be covered in about an hour, depending on your level of interest in reading the displays. That also made completing the Junior Ranger badge very easy.
It is free, open seven days a week and only a short distance off of I-70. I would recommend this easy detour or short day-trip destination as a part of a longer trip to Topeka.
Karen Ridder is a freelance writer living in Topeka. A former News Producer for KSNW-TV in Wichita, her work can also been seen in print publications including: Topeka Magazine, TK Magazine and the Topeka Capital-Journal. She has written for several national blogs and was recently recognized as one of the 2011 winners in the Annual Kansas Factual Story Contest. Karen has lived in Kansas for 15 years and married a native Wichitan. Together they are raising two little sunflower boys and a dog named George.