Monroe Elementary School at night
Monroe Elementary School at night

NPS

Quick Facts

Location:
Topeka, Kansas
Significance:
Monroe Elementary School was the school Linda Brown attended after she was denied attendance at the all-white Sumner Elementary School
Designation:
National Historic Site
OPEN TO PUBLIC:
Yes

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site (Brown v. Board or the park), located in Topeka, Kansas, covers two acres and includes the historic Monroe Elementary School, which served African American students during the segregation era. The neighborhood in which the park is located is a few blocks southeast of downtown Topeka. The neighborhood includes residences, light industry, small businesses, and vacant lots. Brown v. Board interprets the people, places, and events that contributed to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation in public education. Furthermore, the park interprets the integral role of the Brown case in the civil rights movement, preserves the former Monroe Elementary School and associated cultural landscape, and assists in the interpretation of related local, national, and international resources that further the understanding of the civil rights movement.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) is one of the most pivotal opinions ever rendered by that body. This landmark decision highlights the court’s role in affecting changes in national and social policy. Often when people think of the case, they remember a little girl whose parents sued so that she could attend an all-white school in her neighborhood. In reality, the story of Brown v. Board of Education is far more complex.

By 1951, the country had experienced tremendous change that brought the nation closer to ending legal segregation. As the Cold War ideologies of the Soviet Union and the United States emerged as global counterpoints, the practice of racial segregation became an international issue, rather than a domestic issue. As the United States sought new allies to counter Soviet gains in Eastern Europe, it needed to shed the hypocrisy of advocating freedom and equality for all on the international stage while denying basic rights to its African American citizens at home. As a result, President Truman in 1947 used executive authority to order desegregation of the military. The Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the racial restrictive covenants that prevented African Americans and other minority groups from purchasing property in white neighborhoods. Additionally, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) won numerous legal victories to integrate colleges in Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri that established a new legal precedent to challenge segregation in public schools. After nearly 60 years of “separate but equal,” the NAACP and the nation were on the verge of a major victory against segregation.

In late summer of 1948, members of the Topeka, Kansas, chapter of the NAACP volunteered to challenge the “separate but equal” doctrine governing public education. Following a strategy mapped out by Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, Topeka Branch President McKinley Burnett continued to petition the Board of Education to voluntarily desegregate the public schools while branch lawyers began putting a case together and signing up plaintiffs, often recruiting friends and neighbors. A group of 13 parents agreed to participate on behalf of their 20 children. In the summer of 1950, the branch notified the NAACP in New York that the school situation in Topeka had grown unbearable and they were prepared to go to court.

In December 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court had on its docket cases from Kansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, South Carolina, and Virginia, all of which challenged the constitutionality of racial segregation in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court had consolidated these five cases under one name, Oliver Brown et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka. One of the justices later explained that the U.S. Supreme Court felt it was better to have representative cases from different parts of the country. They decided to put Brown first “so that the whole question would not smack of being a purely Southern one.”

This collection of cases was the culmination of years of legal groundwork laid by the NAACP in its work to end segregation. None of the cases would have been possible without the many individuals who were courageous enough to take a stand against the segregated public school system.

Each of the five cases that collectively formed Brown v. Board of Education at the Supreme Court level varied in their specifics. Lack of buses to distant schools, poor facilities, and absence of basic equipment and supplies were among the evidence in the cases outside of Kansas. In Topeka, the African American schools were housed in good quality buildings with supplies and teacher pay commensurate with the city’s white schools. However, children of the plaintiffs were denied access to their much closer neighborhood schools. Instead, they had to attend more distant facilities designated for their race. On May 17, 1954, at 12:52 p.m., the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision stating that it was unconstitutional—a violation of the 14th Amendment— to separate children in public schools for no other reason than their race.

At the end of the Civil War, those recently freed from bondage began to migrate out of the South. In 1874, the Kansas state legislature enacted a civil rights law making it illegal for any business serving the public or operating under a municipal license to discriminate on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. This protective law, coupled with the availability of land through the Homestead Act, resulted in a flood of African Americans looking for a safe place to settle in Kansas. Thousands of “Exodusters,” as they became known, fled the violence and legal discrimination of the South with the end of Reconstruction in 1877. The question of how to educate the children of the new arrivals remained a subject of debate. Kansas settled on voluntary segregation of public elementary schools in larger cities, with an emphasis in Topeka on providing materially equal facilities for African American children. This policy stood firm from the 1920s until the time of the Brown decision.

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site was established in Topeka, Kansas, on October 26, 1992, by Public Law 102-525. The park opened to the public in 2004 on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. The Monroe Elementary School had, with the Sumner Elementary School in Topeka, been designated a national historic landmark in 1987. The park works with many partners to explore through exhibits, education programs, interpretation, and special events the story of Brown v. Board of Education in the context of the ongoing civil rights struggle.

Last updated: January 24, 2018