Brown v. Board of Education and Me
by Bill Samuel
The Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, against racial segregation in public schools, will reach its 65th anniversary on May 17. Consistent Life Network Board member and former President Bill Samuel marks the anniversary with this personal reminiscence.
I was born in 1947 in northern New Jersey, the youngest of four children (in a white family). My father was a Methodist pastor at the time. The Church’s bishop expelled him from the local Conference when I was still a baby due to my father’s participation in an interracial prayer group. Subsequently, my father pastored a church in North Dakota for a year, and then in South Dakota for a year.
In 1953, my parents felt a call from God to go to the Deep South. They got an old truck, packed our belongings, and headed South. They had no jobs lined up but had a contact – Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia. Koinonia had been founded in 1942 by two Baptist couples who had been missionaries from an interracial intentional Christian community committed to racial equality, pacifism, and economic sharing.
We stayed at Koinonia until we moved to a farm outside of Plains, Georgia. The farm had a primitive house which lacked indoor toilet facilities and other modern amenities.
My parents erected a sign outside our home that said “Brotherhood Acres.” We heard that one local white person said about our sign, “they mean everybody” which was correct, albeit not a common understanding of the term among local whites. This realization resulted in some local whites harassing us, including the Ku Klux Klan threatening to burn us out.
We four children went to Plains Elementary School, the white elementary school for the area. I was in first grade. We found it a somewhat dangerous environment, as we were known as “n*****-lovers” and “damn Yankees,” which resulted in considerable hostility towards us, including sometimes being beaten up. Sometimes we would walk the four miles to school, as that seemed safer than braving the school bus ride.
Nationally, the most significant event that school year was on May 17, 1954, when a unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregated schools were “inherently unequal.” I saw that when our family visited a local black school. It had very primitive facilities and an inadequate number of very old textbooks in extremely poor condition.
The Brown decision was a great shock to local whites, who mostly believed strongly in segregation of the races. After the decision, our friends at Koinonia Farm faced greatly increased hostility from the local white community, which had never been friendly to them. The KKK and other local whites tried—unsuccessfully—to force Koinonia Farm out through bullets, a bomb, and a boycott.
During the year we were in Plains, my parents were unemployed except for occasional day labor. However, facing adversity together brought us closer together as a family. Because of my parents’ inability to earn a living in that environment, we moved out after a year.
During the next nine years, we lived in different communities, on a farm or in a small town, in the rural Midwest. My father and the Church parted ways, and both my parents became high school teachers. None of the counties in which we lived had any African American residents, so all the schools were 100% white.
This was the era of “sundown towns”—towns with a policy of forbidding African Americans and sometimes other minorities from being inside the town limits after sundown, coupled with other racial restrictions. The communities we lived in or near weren’t formal sundown towns with signs at the town limits, but informally some of these restrictions were imposed by residents. We found this in the community of Winterset, Iowa, where my parents taught high school for five years.
One evening when my parents were coming back from a school meeting in town to our home 12 miles outside town, they came across an African American couple with their baby walking along the side of the road. They stopped to talk. The man was in the Air Force and returning to base in Omaha after being on leave. Their car had broken down on the other side of town. They walked into town and inquired whether the bus stopped there. Although Greyhound stopped in town, they were told it didn’t stop there, and they would have to go to the next town, which they were told was 5 miles away although in reality it was 25 miles away. My parents took them home to spend the night and to the bus in the morning.
My oldest sister worked for a time as a waitress in Winterset. One time, a friend from college visited with her boyfriend, who was African American. They stopped to eat lunch, and my sister served them. The owner kicked the couple out and fired my sister. She went to work for another restaurant, where the owner welcomed the business of anyone. One day, a bus full of migrant farm workers came through town and stopped at the restaurant for lunch. The owner was happy for the business, but the Sheriff came and ordered them all out of town.
After nine years in all-white communities, we went to Urbana, Illinois, where my father studied at the University of Illinois. I went to the only high school in town, which did include African Americans. This was my first year in an integrated school. That year I became involved in the civil rights movement, and I was arrested at an open housing protest in Urbana’s twin city of Champaign, said to have the most segregated housing in the country—African Americans literally lived across the tracks.
This was the 1963-64 school year, so segregation in public facilities was still common. African Americans had trouble finding hotels or motels that would accept them when traveling, so they resorted to informal networks. Some friends of my parents asked my parents whether an African American family they knew could stay with us while traveling through. Of course, we said yes. They had a boy about my age, who asked if I could take him to get a haircut. We walked to the nearest barber shop, but they said they didn’t know how to cut his hair. The next barber shop said the same. The third barber shop did agree to cut his hair, but did a poor job.
The next year my father got a job teaching at a black college, now defunct, in Lawrenceville, Virginia. Virginia responded to the Brown decision with an official campaign of massive resistance. While the courts rather quickly overturned these laws, it took a long time for many Virginia schools to begin desegregation. For this school district, 10 years after the Brown decision, it was the first year of token desegregation – the “freedom of choice” system in which students could be registered in the school of their choice. Most African American families were afraid to register in formerly all-white schools for fear of losing their jobs, but a dozen registered for the formerly white high school where I registered.
The school district didn’t decide until the last day how to handle transportation. They informed students of their bus assignments by phone. Because the local phone company refused us service on the grounds we were “n*****-lovers,” they could not notify us. I went with a neighbor who was one of the school’s first African American students. The district decided on segregated buses, so the driver was surprised to see me but let me on. Our bus got to school late each day and left early, because it had to first serve the black high school.
When we got to school, they were having an opening assembly. They read a list of names of students to go to a separate assembly — all the others on my bus. In the main assembly they stated, “Normally it is our policy to welcome new students. This year, it is our policy to ostracize new students.” At lunch time, I sat with others from my bus. I think that’s when the school decided to classify me as a “Negro” student. There was only one white student in the school who would talk to me (other than to insult me).
On May 10, 2019, civil rights projects at two universities issued a report assessing the situation 65 years after the Brown decision. It found that “intense levels of segregation…are on the rise once again.” My home state of Maryland is one of four states in which the majority of African American students attend intensely segregated schools (schools at least 90% non-white). A major factor is housing segregation.
White supremacy is deeply embedded in our culture in the USA. It will take sustained effort over the long haul involving people from all ethnic groups to uproot it. We all need to do our part.
Brown overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, which is one of the cases we cover in Our Experience with Overturning Terrible Court Decisions
For more of our posts from Bill Samuel, see:
A Way Beyond the Abortion Wars? (book review)
For some of our posts focused primarily on racism, see: