Monday, October 19, 2009

Before Brown: A call to arms on Race and Education

What follows is the full text of Branch President Myles' address to the 2009 Wichita NAACP Legacy Awards Banquet (October 17th, 2009)


In Church Parlance, this would be the part of the service known as the “Call to Discipleship”. – Where I would stand and exhort all of you to become members of the Wichita Branch NAACP – This is when I should tell you all that we have members of our membership committee standing by outside the door waiting to take your membership and welcome you into the organization, and certainly that is important…

This is also the point in the evening when most Organizations would stand and tell you about all of the accomplishments of their branch. But I don’t want to do that this evening.

Now I could tell you about how the Wichita Branch has doubled its membership over the last year, but I won’t bore you with that.

I could tell you how the Wichita Branch received two First Place Thalheimer Awards this year, and that the Thalheimer is the highest award that the National Office can confer upon a branch. And I could tell you that the Wichita Branch was recognized for having some of the best Publications and most impactful initiatives in the Country – But I won’t do that…

I could tell you about how our advocacy led to the purchase of additional voting machines for the 2008 Presidential Election, or how our advocacy efforts to have the State come into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act of 1994 have resulted in a streamlined voter registration process both online and at the DMV, but I won’t go into all that…

Or I could tell you about how we began with a handful of our own children – just 5 kids - and our desire to see them involved in a youth program that did more than just give them space to create dance routines or play on the internet… So we contacted and sought advice from Professor Ron Walters at the University of Maryland’s Leadership Institute. And we built a program, based on Chess and Chess principles, and expanded into debate and oratory. And we now have 63 children and a successful model that is being emulated in branches around the Country – but we’ll save that conversation for next time…

No, paradoxically, I want to take these few moments to talk to you all about yesterday and tomorrow… Yesterday because someone far wiser than I once said that ‘Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it’. And tomorrow because another someone far wiser than I once said that ’Tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it Today’.

There is an imporatant lesson in these aphorisms for us… As we embark on our second century in Civil Rights with a keen eye cast towards education, I just want to take a couple minutes of your time to quickly direct your attention to the prescriptive lessons one can draw from the careful examination of our history; and particularly how those lessons can inform our current efforts to achieve our visions of tomorrow.

And it’s important that we do this and that we have this discussion because ‘Those who do not know their history are What? … doomed to repeat it…

Let me ask, by applause, how many of you have had the opportunity to take a look at the exhibits we have in the other room? If you haven’t had the opportunity to view them, please make it a point to do so before you leave here tonight. We have two really fantastic exhibitions, one is a traveling exhibit dealing with the Brown Vs. the Board decision, and the other is an exhibit assembled by our own branch historian Ms. Donna Ray Pearson, which deals with the history of race and education here in the State of Kansas.

One of the things you quickly learn when you begin looking into our State’s history on matters of race is that Kansas has a lot to be proud of…

The State of Kansas was founded in 1854 and by the time it was admitted into the Union as a Free State in 1861, The promise to provide a Quality Education for ALL children was already written into our State’s Constitution.

The City of Wichita was founded in 1870 and in 1871 the City erected its very first school built on the corner of 2nd and Emporia street. Wichita’s very First school, built only 6 years after slavery had ended, and when it opened its doors on it’s very first day, it was - integrated…

90 years before the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, - 90 years Prior – We passed the Kansas Civil Rights Act of 1874! The act prohibited discrimination throughout the State of Kansas on behalf of Race, Color, or Previous conditions of servitude.

In fact, when our Branch President Emeritus Chester Lewis filed the lawsuits that desegregated the swimming pools and desegregated the police department, going on to file some 63 lawsuits to open up facilities and institutions throughout the City of Wichita, he didn't do so on the basis of some piece of Federal legislation. While much of the country was still languishing under highly oppressive systems of institutional and interpersonal bigotry, Chester Lewis was able to fight and prevail in the Courts here in Kansas – perhaps ONLY here in Kansas – because the Kansas Civil Rights act of 1874 had already prohibited racial discrimination throughout the state nearly a century before…

But these accomplishments, these milestones, which were such anomalies for their time, beg a very serious question… If we had more than a hundred year head-start… ??

If we had activists who were progressive and fiercely committed to the idea that Kansas should be a FREE state, people who were willing to fight and shed blood to further the idea that equal rights should be extended to all who would reside here – people who were willing to fight even against our neighbors in bitter border-wars with the State of Missouri earning us the moniker of Bloody Kansas – People who willingly codified their commitment to equality and education in the Constitution of the State almost 150 years ago – People who had drafted a Statewide School code that prohibited separate and/or disparate facilities – HOW then, did we come to this place – 148 years later – in the 21st Century – with a Black Man in the White house – where we have to figure out HOW in the WORLD we’re going to get these children BACK together!?

How did we lose our way? And why do we seem unable to now conquer the forces that we had once so soundly defeated?

We have to ask ourselves these kinds of questions because ‘Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it…’

It’s easy for us to be lulled to sleep by the notion of how far we’ve come and societally we have much to celebrate; but we must be honest with ourselves in acknowledging that in the matter of Education here in the State of Kansas – We’ve gone backwards… Because you see, here in Kansas we NEVER grappled with the question of IF African American’s would be educated or HOW they would be educated – These questions were already settled and codified into law back in 1861. We have Always – and ONLY grappled with the questions of WHERE would African American children be educated - and by WHOM.

WHERE and by WHOM

So when we talk about issues like Busing – Boundary Lines – Experienced Teachers – Community folks in the schools and classrooms – it’s important that we place these conversations in their proper historical context. These are not new conversations. These are not new discussions. We are not being bold. We are not being visionary. We’ve been mired in this very conversation for 130 years – and somehow, we keep ending up back at the starting line…

I say 130 years because it was in 1879 that the Wichita Board of Education first proposed separating its Black and White students.

That year, the Board even passed a Bond Issue that raised money for the construction of 4 new schools – one of which was specifically intended to serve as a school for Black students. But an amendment to the Kansas School Code passed in that same year that Specifically forbade the segregation of students on the basis of race.

The Wichita School board filed suit – asking for the right to separate the black and white students different facilities. But all the way back in 1881 – 28 years before Thurgood Marshall was BORN, the Supreme Court of the State of Kansas upheld the Kansas School Code which expressly prohibited Wichita from maintaining segregated facilities or excluding Black children from predominantly White schools.

How then, did we get from there to here?

Now I know the simple answers – “Society changed and there was a lot of social pressure to segregate”. The only problem with that explanation is that we actually fought a war against the State of Missouri to defend our notions of equality. There was ALWAYS opposition to equality, there was ALWAYS pressure to separate and subjugate – But Kansans once refused – and defended their decision to do so with the lives….

Now others will say “well, the segregation is a function of residential housing patterns, our neighborhoods are segregated and our schools simply reflect that” But the problem with THAT argument is – it was not always so…

You see there once was a time in Wichita when we had a system made up entirely of neighborhood schools, and the Black population was pretty evenly spread between them.

In 1904 there were Black students in attendance in all of Wichita’s schools. 12 at Carleton, 56 at Emerson, 53 at Ingalls, 52 at Irving, 5 at Kellogg, 12 at Lincoln, 48 at Park, 9 at Washington, and 25 at Webster….

The truth is, we didn’t separate our children to allow them to attend schools in their neighborhoods… Our children were separated solely on the basis of their race REGARDLESS of their neighborhood.

The Board of Education here in Wichita fought against the laws of the State of Kansas for 27 consecutive years; passing ordinances, pushing for legislation in Topeka, and taking advantage of Supreme Court decisions such as Plessy Vs Fergussen, before they were able to successfully segregate the students at Park Elementary in 1906. They separated the children into different parts of the building with black students and black teachers on one side, and whites on the other. They even erected a wall to divide the playground like Berlin…

But the Black parents fought back; in 1906, Sallie Rowles filed a lawsuit demanding the right to send her children to her neighborhood school. While she initially lost that case, the community took up a collection which allowed her to appeal her case to the Kansas Supreme Court who ruled in her favor and UPHELD their earlier decisions that the City of Wichita could not legally segregate their students.

Undaunted, the Wichita Board of Education would not give up; they collected 5,000 signatures on a petition to the Legislature to allow segregation in the schools. And in 1909, the same year that the NAACP was founded – exactly 100 years ago – after 30 long years of fighting - the President of the Wichita School Board, Rudolph Hatfield, led a sucessful effort to pass Senate bill 250 which REPEALED the State laws which forbade segregation and a New educational era was born in Kansas…

In 1911 the Wichita School Board proposed a bond issue – They sold the measure by saying that this was an effort to address overcrowding – and when it passed, two new schools were built – but these schools were built specifically for the purpose of educating Black children. And in 1912, the first "Negro Schools" were officially designated.

Now they had nothing to do with where the Black community was actually located – at that time we were scattered throughout the city. Families with children looked for housing near their schools and their places of employment so while there were certainly concentrations, as I noted before our children had been represented in ALL of the schools in Wichita.

Between 1912 and 1952, the battle raged on – With Black Parents and the NAACP fighting to end legalized segregation and the school district fighting to maintain it. And as more and more people from the Black community moved away from the Downtown area and towards the Northeast, the School board responded by changing and re-designating schools to mirror the migrating population.

And in 1952, after 40 years of struggle – yet still 2 years before the Brown decision – The Wichita School Board passed a resolution to end Dejure segregation by allowing black parents to enroll their children in their neighborhood schools. But of course by that time - 73 years since the District began its efforts to segregate our children – 43 years after the laws forbidding segregation were repealed – and 40 years since the creation, designation, and manipulation of Black schools and black boundaries, Negro wards, and the like – The Black schools had BECOME the neighborhood schools…

In Just 2 years would come the Brown Decision and not long after that, the Wichita Branch filed suit against the district – recognizing that we’d been hoodwinked – bamboozled – led astray – run amuck etc…

But Ladies and Gentlemen, I told you all of that, to tell you this…

As we continue our talks about diversity in the schools, busing, and boundary lines, and neighborhoods, I want it to be said that We had it right to begin with - but at some point, we gave in.

We gave in to the forces of intolerance, we gave in to the forces of bigotry, we gave in to the evils of racism, and we IMPORTED the very system that we had so ardently defied.

We need to remember and to teach our youth that Here in Kansas, the issues of busing, and Integration, and Desegregation were not the products of a court decision in 1954, These were not simply the products of the Civil Rights movement, or some strategy born of the 1960’s – THESE questions are about the Fundamental character of WHO WE ARE – This is Kansas...


The Legacies of slavery, separation, segregation, and subjugation: those were not our legacies… We were born a FREE state – Not because the Union deemed it so, not because the laws demanded it, no – the People of this State demanded that it must be so. We once fought to defend that ideal; many bled and many died for it. And we wrote these guarantees into our laws and constitution.

The oldest Black township in America is STILL in existence, right here in Kansas – Nicodemus – where a group of escaped Kentucky slaves first settled, because here they could buy land, own property, start business, and attend schools – They founded the City of Nicodemus in the 1860’s and it remains populated to this very day.

But we gave in…

At our inception, we recognized that there is nothing moral, or just, or fair, or natural about separating children on the basis of their skin color. There is no scientific, or biological, or natural justification for doing so. It’s not based on the best interests of Children, its not based on necessity, and its not based on GOD!

This is Kansas – Ladies and Gentlemen… We didn’t wait on Brown Vs the Board of Education – We outlawed Segregation in our schools back in 1861!

But we gave in…


The tide turned with a petition to segregate signed by only 5,000 people – Ladies and Gentlemen – there are more than 5,000 people in Town East Mall RIGHT NOW! – but still we listened, and we became something else…

We imported the Hatred, the discrimination, the segregation, the intolerances, and the bigotries of the South. We caught the Separation Virus. All of us – Until eventually, you even had folks in the Black Community arguing that Separation and segregation was good for us..

But it was Frederick Nietzsche who said “Those of you who battle with Monsters should be careful that you don’t become one, for when you gaze long into the Abyss – The abyss gazes long into you…”

Mr. Superintendent, members of the Board, Brothers and Sisters... This is not who we are, This must not be our Legacy. We should not be having discussions about building more Black seats for Black kids in Black schools and telling ourselves that it’s ok - IT IS NOT

We are better than this – This is Kansas...

Now some will say, well the segregation in residential housing patterns makes it impossible for us to fix this – But of course we can fix this – we created this… But we must recognize and acknowledge that there is a Principle at stake. This is about who we are. We should be as bold in UNDOING this as the Board of 1879 was in creating it. And in doing so we honor our history.

Some will undoubtedly argue that all of this is irrelevant because we should instead be focusing on the Achievement Gap…

But that too is indicative of a misreading of history – The argument against segregation in Brown Vs the Board wasn't that separate schools couldn’t be made comparable or couldn’t reach some measure of Equity… They argued that there is a psychological and a spiritual consequence in telling Children that we would rather build separate facilities, even with all the Bells and Whistles, sparing no expense... We would rather duplicate the buildings we already have, then to be burdened by your Presence… There are real consequences for doing so that are borne only by the Child, and that is why Separate can NEVER be Equal.

“Well what about the Hispanic Children? They are segregated into certain schools aren’t they?” But when a people freely choose to cluster together to maintain a Culture or language that is one thing, but when a group of people are clustered together so that they may be avoided – that is another thing entirely…

Understand that Black families didn’t crowd themselves into the Triple A Area because we wanted our children to be educated in those few schools… - By the decree of a mere 5,000 people – we began a 43 year process of herding them there….

Ladies and Gentlemen – I am here today to tell you that a time has come when we should no longer mince words. We are faced with large and consequential decisions and it is time that we owned them. We must be clear and forthright knowing that our actions today will outlive us all; impacting the educational and life experiences of several generations to come – We have a choice to make….

We have two competing and contradictory Legacies before us and we MUST choose – One is a legacy of segregation and separation now disguised by quaint conversations about ‘Neighborhoods’ and ‘Equity’, and the other is a Defiant, unapologetic and even revolutionary Legacy of Equality – disguised by NOTHING. The former is the sweet and easy path of acquiesance that challenges nothing except our vocabularies and our ability to rationalize. And the later is the difficult and uncertain path of change; one that requires equal measures of vision and courage to shake off the excuses and to lead once more...

I know where I stand..

As the President of the Wichita Branch NAACP - I know where WE stand…

We stand with the JayHawks.

We Stand with the Kansas Supreme Court who struck DOWN segregation in 1881.

We stand with Jacob McAfee – Grand Father of Mr. Charles McAfee who went to the Legislature to fight for Equality.

We stand with Sallie Rowles who filed suit in 1906 rather consent to sending her child to a segregated school.

We stand with Branch President James Douglass and School Board member Hugh Simms who led the push which finally ended legalized segregation Wichita back in 1949.

We stand with Branch President Chester Lewis who filed 63 lawsuits to desegregate institutions throughout the City.

We stand with Ron Walters, Galyn Vessey, Prentice Lewis, Joyce Glass, Lequita Glass, Daisy Blue, Arnelle Ruffin, Ron Newby, and all of the other members of the NAACP Youth group of 1958 who conducted the Dockum Sit-In.

We stand with Mayor Bob Knight who led the National League of Cities to deal with the issue of Racism head-on.

Ladies and Gentlemen, This is where we stand. And all I ask of you tonight… - is that you come on back – come back home with us – to Kansas…

Thank you ladies and gentlemen for your continued support in these difficult economic times...

Thank you for your courtesy and attention…

And thank you for listening…

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