When the U. S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated public schools on May 17, 1954, in a case we know as Brown v. Board of Education, many Blacks saw this as the dawn of a new day. It held the promise of barriers swiftly falling in all aspects of American life. As I wrote in The Root nine years ago on its 60th anniversary, the decision “was hailed in the Black press of the day as the most significant event in the freedom struggle since the Emancipation Proclamation.”

“When Brown was decided, it was part of the tearing down of walls of separation and segregation which were so powerful a reality in American life,” my friend Ted Shaw said when we talked about the decision a few days ago. He’s now a distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, but from 2004 to 2008, he led the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and he’s argued school desegregation cases before the Supreme Court.

Today? “Public education is even more segregated than it was then,” notes Glenda Prime, one of my colleagues at Morgan State University. She is dean of the School of Education and Urban Policy, which recently launched the National Center for the Elimination of Educational Disparity.

Back in 1954 and 1955, when Brown was decided in two stages, it gave a boost to equal rights advocates in Baltimore where, led by the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, walls were already coming down.

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“Baltimore First to Integrate Public Classes,” a headline in the weekly Afro announced on Sept. 13, 1952. Just days before, the school board had voted 5-3 to admit Black boys to Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (Poly). Advocates had successfully demonstrated that Poly’s college-prep curriculum was unique and so prestigious that its graduates were classified as sophomores when admitted to top university engineering programs, and they were in high demand in the jobs market.

Relying on the Supreme Court doctrine that then mandated separate but equal facilities for Blacks, they argued that because there was nothing comparable to Poly’s heralded “A course” in Black schools, the only alternative was to admit the 12 teenagers who had applied to Poly. The Washington Post reported: “It was the first time a wedge ever has been driven into Baltimore’s policy of segregation in public schools.”

In 1954, the Supreme Court said segregation in public schools violated the U.S. Constitution; a year later, it ordered that these separate school systems be dismantled “with all deliberate speed.” Baltimore did so, generally uneventfully. But by 1960, a number of formerly white schools where Blacks had enrolled had become majority-Black, as whites left the city for the suburbs or remained but chose private and parochial schools for their children.

Brown had an enormous impact on my life. My formal education began in Conyers, Georgia, the summer before first grade in 1961. That’s when Mrs. Thomas, the librarian at the sole Black school, plucked me from a group of rambunctious kids in the school playground and introduced me to books and an unimaginable world beyond our rural town.

By the time I started first grade weeks later, I was a relatively advanced reader. By 1968, the pressure was on from the federal government for school districts such as mine to finally take seriously what the Supreme Court had ordered a month before I was born in 1955. I was plucked from the safety of J. P. Carr to join other Black kids in transferring to Rockdale High, a white school. We were part of a phased-in merger of the two separate and vastly unequal school systems.

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As slow as it was, Conyers was still ahead of many other places where flare-ups over everything from busing to the contours of voluntary and mandatory desegregation plans to separate proms regularly made headlines.

It’s been a while since we’ve heard that sort of clamor.

“In significant ways, many Americans, Black and white, have given up on integrated education, but also the idea of desegregation as an imperative has become less significant,” Shaw observed.

For various reasons, the urgency of complying with Brown has receded.

Reflecting on what the courts have done, Shaw noted rulings that have barred ambitious plans that would bus kids across county lines or dictate school funding from sources other than property taxes. So, the courts have left schools “racially separate and financially unequal.”

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Some of the resistance that led unrepentant racists to put their children in segregated schools known colloquially as “seg academies” in the deep South in the 1950s and 1960s has continued to be just as insurmountable as erstwhile middle-class liberals choose alternative schools for their children. To them, the integrated public schools are inferior.

No one ever really liked busing of children from their neighborhoods to schools way off in what felt like foreign territory to achieve a numerical Black-white balance.

Many Blacks found it insulting to presume that their children needed to be in schools with white children to gain a quality education or social acceptance.

Major cities such as Baltimore have faced another problem: There are not enough white kids in public schools to go around. In this city, only 7% of its 76,000 public-school pupils are white.

Needless to say, as long as we Americans largely live in segregated communities, the focus must necessarily look beyond racial makeup of classrooms as a measure of what kind of education kids receive in public schools.

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“We see more evidence of children leaving school inadequately prepared for college. We see exclusionary disciplinary practiced in schools that largely are populated by Black and brown children. We see greater teacher turnover. And all of those things layered on top of segregation by geographic location serve to produce inequitable outcomes,” Prime said.

That’s where nationwide emphases on such issues as equity, cultural competence of teachers and responsive curriculum come into play.

In Maryland, we now have the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, legislation enacted in 2021 to bring “opportunity and promise of a better future to every Maryland child.” In the official language of the Maryland State Department of Education: “Prioritizing equity, the Blueprint prescribes new programs and innovative approaches to catalyze a world-renowned education system that aims to eradicate achievement gaps and ensures opportunity for every student, regardless of family income, race, ethnicity, or ability.”

And, so, how should we think of Brown nearly 70 years on?

“I often say that Brown is probably one of the most revered decisions in Supreme Court jurisprudence,” Shaw said, adding, “but I also think that it’s hollow in the sense that there’s not much real commitment to integrated education. Not anymore.”

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Even so, says Dr. Sonja B. Santelises, the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, many current initiatives to improve schools are iterations of “what was used to make the case for Brown in the first place.”

“The questions that Brown asked about equal access to a high-quality education still come into view. I don’t think that’s changed at all,” she said.

I hold on to what Brown once meant. As those of us who lived through the end of the Jim Crow era cede the stage to younger generations, that significance may fade. It may no longer be seen as a victory at home that so many Black soldiers expected in return for fighting for victory abroad during World War II. The date of the ruling may no longer conjure up triumph and jubilee.

But once upon a time …


E.R. Shipp is a veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is also currently an associate professor at Morgan State University.

E.R. Shipp is part of The Baltimore Banner's Creatives in Residence program, which amplifies the work of artists and writers from the Baltimore region. 

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