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Education and Freedom

It’s back to school time in the United States, and a good moment to reflect on major changes to the nation’s schools that resulted from the actions of everyday people. Racial segregation in public schools is part of the nation’s history of education. The iconic schools, like Monroe Elementary and Central High School, are only part of the story. Archeology helps us to understand the historic communities surrounding these schools who experienced racial segregation firsthand.

Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas is best known for its role in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which led to the desegregation of schools nationwide. Before the court case in 1954, there was an active, working-class neighborhood of African Americans dating back to the 1860s. The origin of Topeka’s African American community was the Exoduster migration. Thousands of people moved away from their repressive pasts to find new opportunities in the Midwest. These opportunities did not materialize; instead, whites supported systemic racial inequality while blacks found their own means to subvert it.

Archaeologists working near the Monroe School identified several historical structures as well as the location of its 19th century foundations. Families living in the brick and frame homes near the Monroe School left evidence of their everyday lives through artifacts. They purchased commercially available consumer goods and participated in the new mass consumerism. African Americans used goods to voice their preferences and opinions, develop identities, and shape society. Their goods came from Europe as well as mass production centers, both regionally and the northeastern states. Such goods, when archeologically recovered, suggested that African Americans in Topeka used consumerism to fight oppression.

The African Americans living in Topeka were held to an 1897 law in Kansas that permitted racially segregated elementary schools in some cities. By 1950, Topeka operated eighteen neighborhood schools for white children, while African American children had access to four schools. Among the black schools was Monroe Elementary, now Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site. The Topeka chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized a legal challenge to the law. It assembled a group of thirteen parents who agreed to be plaintiffs on behalf of their twenty children. They attempted to enroll their children in segregated white schools, but all were denied. In 1951, the Topeka NAACP filed a case with the U.S. Supreme Court on their behalf, which became known as “Brown vs. Board of Education” after one of the plaintiffs. The case, which also challenged the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896, determined that state laws establishing separate schools for white and black students were unconstitutional. As a result, schools across America were integrated.

After the Supreme Court struck down segregated schools, many communities struggled with integrating their classrooms. Like Topeka, whites and African Americans in Little Rock, Arkansas attended segregated schools. Starting circa 1897, a lot near Central High School contained homes and businesses. Geophysical surveys matched archeological data with Sanborn maps to locate a plant nursery and greenhouse established in 1897. It was in business until 1988. Archeologists also identified house foundations dating to 1897. Today, the high school and adjacent landscape contribute to the historic context for telling the story of community building in Little Rock’s West End area, a working middle class community where whites and blacks were neighbors.

Central High School is where nine African-American students—the “Little Rock Nine”—attempted to enter a previously all-white school. The Arkansas National Guard blocked them, sparking several weeks of confrontation between state and federal authorities. Integration of Little Rock’s schools was not accomplished until 1959. Central High School became the symbol of the end of racially segregated schools in the United States.

Today, the stories of Monroe and Central are such a significant part of the nation’s history that lesson plans and educational activities have been created about them. Visit the websites below to learn opportunities for teachers and students.

Brown vs. Board of Education:
Brown v. Board of Education NHS website for teachers and for kids.
Teaching with Historic Places: Brown vs. Board of Education.

Little Rock Central High School:
Little Rock Central High School NHS website for teachers and for kids.
Teaching with Historic Places: From Canterbury to Little Rock.

  • Kids learn to read at segregated school in Washington, DC. [LOC photo]
  • Mother explains desegregation order to child on steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. [LOC photo]
  • Little girls in newly-desegregated classroom in Washington, DC. [LOC photo]
  • School built by black settlers at Nicodemus National Historic Site in Kansas. [NPS photo]