We’re Still Waiting For The Promise Of Brown v. Board Of Education To Be Fulfilled

Our house had a cottonwood tree in the backyard. It bloomed in the excruciating Texas summer, and cotton flew around the house like summer snow. It caked over the window screens and blocked the wind from entering the house. Some neighbors had water cooler fans that blew out a cool mist. I wouldn’t say I liked those fans and was grateful we couldn’t afford one. I caN’t afford one. It made the whole place feel like a swamp and made everyone feel like they were trying to breathe underwater. I can

We were poor, but not in the ways that mattered. No one went hungry. No one was homeless. There were no drugs. No gangs and no neighborhood blight. The front door to our house was never locked. And everybody owned the home they lived in. My parents purchased our home in the 1950s, a significant accomplishment for them. When I enrolled in elementary school, all of my teachers were Black, and they preached excellence like a well-rehearsed Sunday sermon. By the time I began middle school, I was a track star in sixth grade, held the first chair in the band, and was among the top five grade earners.

But all that changed in 1974 when I was in seventh grade. As part of the mandate issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, my classmates and I were among the first Dallas students to participate in a new busing program. On May 17, 1954, the Brown case signified a cultural reconstruction project of enormous proportions for our country. It successfully ended legal segregation in education and laid the groundwork to dismantle segregation in all sorts of other areas, including housing, transportation, voting, employment, and public accommodations. It is viewed as the most significant case of race in America’s history. However, the ruling was marred by violent confrontations delaying its implementation in some parts of the country for over 20 years.


But when the Brown ruling finally etched itself upon the country, the social stuff of that imprinting behaved in ways other than intended. As I took in the palaces of white people I passed, a question occurred: ‘Do I need new dreams?’ My fellow students and I were bused to the north side of town to attend a school with a predominantly white population. While riding through their neighborhood in the big yellow bus that took my neighbors and me out of our community to experience what educational authorities called “excellent education, and then back to our neighborhood to live where no good thing could come from, it occurred to me that something was wrong. The scene outside my window rolled by in slow motion. The large, lavish houses struck me like a fairy tale. As I took in the palaces of white people I passed, a question occurred: “Do I need new dreams?”

The experiment only lasted one semester for me. For others, it lasted longer — a year or two years. My classmates and I were divided into three groups, based on where we lived, and assigned to different trial periods and schools. A seemingly random sampling of all three groups never participated in the busing program. What happened to the data from the experiment is still unclear. After that trial semester at the predominantly white school, I returned to my neighborhood school, but it had changed. More than half the teachers had been replaced with younger white women and disaffected Black teachers, who seemed to have lost something. The academic program was weak, I went to school only two or three days per week, yet I graduated high school in the top 10% of my class.

I didn’t return to the running track or the band. I hadn’t been allowed to join the running team of my new school because though I had been seen as talented in my old school, I was not at my new school. I wasn’t even allowed an opportunity to try out. And though I had been the first chair in the band at my old school, I was relegated to the eighth chair in my new school. So I stopped doing both activities for the semester I was there. The break proved too disruptive, and I lost interest in the band and never played again. I considered rejoining the track team at my old school, but my confidence had been unsettled, and I decided against it.

Five years after I graduated high school, just a decade after the Brown initiative was enacted in 1974, my mother sold the family home and became the neighborhood crack house. I moved to New York City to attend Columbia University but returned home to visit my old neighbors and see where I grew up. The wretchedness of the block disoriented me. For the next decade, I had nightmares in which I tried to go home but could not find my house. It was simply missing.

My childhood neighborhood was a product of what happened when the 1970s “integration” replaced the 1954 fight for “equality,” which would have been better translated as “equity.” Black Americans, who were prepared to “integrate” into mainstream America, began to move out of Black neighborhoods in the ’70s — and these neighborhoods, as a consequence, began to deteriorate. Black neighborhoods across America were quickly and unexpectedly shifting as the professionals moved out — going from homeowners to renters, from single-family homes to massive subsidized multifamily projects, and from professionals to low-wage earners.

By the 1980s, crack cocaine found its way into many Black communities and rendered them utterly incapacitated. In 2003, I conducted an anthropological research project in a Houston neighborhood that offered a unique opportunity to follow three different types of families: the working poor (in an area colloquially known as The Bottoms), upper-middle-class African American families (near Texas Southern University, a historical Black college with a legacy that extends back to the emancipation from slavery), and upper-middle-class white families (who worked at University of Houston). I discovered that white families served as the model for all reform efforts — they served as the “norm.” Governments, nonprofits, and private efforts used and still use this central place to determine how to create and implement all reform programs. And this is where Brown went wrong.

Portrait of the Black students and their parents who initiated Brown v. Board in Topeka, Kansas, 1953. Pictured are, front row from left, students Vicki Henderson, Donald Henderson, Linda Brown (for whom the suit was named), James Emanuel, Nancy Todd, and Katherine Carper; back row from left, parents Zelma Henderson, Oliver Brown, Sadie Emanuel, Lucinda Todd, and Lena Carper. A 2004 presentation at the University of Michigan by Linda Brown Thompson, who was the 7-year-old at the center of the Brown case in 1954, makes it clear that her parents, Oliver and Leola Brown, didn’t want their daughter to go to a white school because it was better than her Black school, but rather because it was closer to where they lived.

What Brown was really about was choice and equal access. The architects of the Brown initiative wanted Black Americans to have the right to choose where they would live, go to school, work, and eat ― just like white Americans! But the way that idea was executed announced to the world that no good thing could come from Black neighborhoods. But the implementation of Brown compared Black communities to White areas,s and that comparison ended up devaluing Black schools, values,s and life.

Thompson recalled that Monroe Elementary, the school that both she and her mother attended, was a good school. The teachers were wonderful and paid a lot of attention to the students. However, the principle of the matter was that her parents should have had the right to choose where their daughter went. In contrast, however, the Supreme Court said the segregation of white and Black children in public schools had a detrimental effect on Black children. There was no mention of the impact of segregation on white children.

The court’s decision said racial conflict is a psychological problem and signaled that it is with Black people: They are being damaged by their inherently inferior schooling. In other words, the Browns were saying there is a structural problem in our society with how race is used to make laws and other social decisions. The 1970s integration process was, therefore, the failure of Brown. But the values of integration itself deserve to be reconsidered.

Integration should b and has been, for me personally, an important process to access places where we build networks and make connections that provide us opportunities to compete in the world. Without the integration principles, I would never have been allowed to apply to, let alone attend, Columbia University. Without exposure to classmates from around the world, it never would have even occurred to me that I could travel the globe to study how people interact in complex social environments.

I want to be clear: I’m not saying that schools should be segregated or that Brown in and of itself was a bad thing. Of course,e it was not. Segregation locks Black people out of the places where social power resides,s and denies the fundamental freedom of any democracy. What I am saying is we have an important opportunity in our nation’s history to reconsider what we want this country to look like and how we wish its citizens, including those,e who happen to be Black, to be treated.

Because of the racial justice uprisings that erupted across our cities in recent years, especially in the last year, and the learning and awareness that has come with them, people are paying attention and listening in ways they haven’t ― maybe ever before. We have an important opportunity in our nation’s history to reconsider what we want this country to look like and how we wish its citizens, including those who happen to be Black, to be treated.

Now is the perfect time to be inspired by and reinvigorate the original ideals of Brown. Now is the perfect time to remember what was at the heart of Brown ― the right to choose and the fight for true equity, not a mandate for merely checking boxes and creating programs that add underrepresented individuals to previously denied space. That wasn’t, isn’t ― and never will be ― enough.

We must continue to push forward and fight to affect real change in this country. We must harness the power of the rising social movements and do more than the bare minimum. We must remember how the implementation of the Brown ruling hurt many communities, like my childhood neighborhood, and let those memories serve as a reminder that good intentions without true understanding, clear and just goals, and commitment and follow-through can have unthinkable consequences.

Sixty-seven years ago, the Brown ruling offered Black Americans and all American a dream yet to be realized. It is well past time for us to stop dreaming of true equality and start living it. Sharon Washington, Ph.D., is an anthropologist who has traveled the world exploring human capacity as imagination. She attended Columbia University and the New School for Social Research in New York City. She regularly spoke at universities and conferences on social justice, race, economic insecurity, education,n and media influences. Her Ph.D. dissertation, “The Educational Contract,” recounts her travels in the U.S., sub-Saharan Africa,  and Latin America. Sharon lives in Houston, Texas, and has written for the Dallas Times Herald, New York Newsday, and the Akron Beacon Journal. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here, and send us a pitch!


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Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!