The Modern Equivalent of 40 Acres and a Mule

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The Goodnow House
The Goodnow House

Yesterday I went east; today I’m going west. My first stop is the Goodnow House. Like the Adairs of Osawatomie, Isaac and Ellen Goodnow were abolitionists who came to Kansas to stop the tide of slavery. Goodnow and his followers established the city of Manhattan as a free-state settlement and, later, Kansas State University as a land grant college.

The Kansas plains were treeless, so limestone, a dirty-gold-colored stone, was the basic building block. I’m used to seeing limestone barns, even houses, but it’s during my drive through downtown Manhattan that I have my first sighting of a limestone castle and a limestone football stadium. So, what is interesting about the Goodnow house is not that it is mostly made of limestone but that its brick chimney curves like a question mark around the second-floor window. Ellen arrived after the first floor had been built and informed her husband that the second-floor bedroom needed an easterly window. Her husband and the chimney bent to Ellen’s will.

My next stop is Kansas’ First Territorial Capitol in Fort Riley. This is my first visit to a military base, so I’m surprised to find that as soon as I turn off at Exit 301, MPs stop my car and ask to see not only my license and registration but also proof of insurance. Are they checking to see if I’ve recently taken out a terrorism policy?

The hand-painted signs welcoming Fort Riley soldiers home are heartrending. The local papers have been filled with stories about the Pentagon extending tours of duty in Iraq and obituaries of the Fort Riley dead. A recent Saturday saw six Fort Riley soldiers killed in a single roadside attack near Baghdad. Unexpectedly, I find myself choking up as I drive past the limestone barracks on the base. I came within a hairsbreadth of volunteering for the National Guard after 9/11, changing my mind at the last minute because of how close I was to the upper age limit. (Also, I have a slight problem with authority.) Now these fit young men are fighting and dying in my place, and I’m sick with guilt that mostly I feel relief I never called that recruiter back.

Fort Riley was established in 1853 to provide protection for Manifest Destiny traffic along the Oregon Trail. The two-story limestone Territorial Capitol was built in 1855 next to Fort Riley so that it would fall under the security umbrella of the U.S. Cavalry. However, the first Territorial Congress was largely made up of pro-slavery Missourians, and Fort Riley is a long wagon ride from the border. The first bill they passed on their first day (July 2, 1855) mandated moving the Kansas capital closer to the Missouri border. On July 6, 1855, they adjourned, locking up the building never to return.

As I read the sign, my mood is suddenly lifted. Ever since I walked into the brand new, very expensive, and completely empty Topeka airport (everyone uses Kansas City International), I’ve been secretly searching for Kansas’ very first boondoggle, and I’ve found it—a state building that was put to use for a grand total of four days.

I walk around and around this holy site, partly in awe, but mostly because the doors are locked and the curator is AWOL. (You should call ahead to avoid this outcome.) From pressing my nose against the windows and cupping my eyes to block out the sun, I am fairly certain the museum has a number of exhibits, some signs with historical tidbits in big bold print, and a couple of glass cases filled with 19th-century muskets and swords.

The area around the First Boondoggle Capitol is a nice place to bring your family. Behind the picnic tables, there is a nature trail with enough dirt paths, shrubs, and hiding places for the kids to play war, doctor, or the new game that combines them both: Naked Arab Pyramid.

Because he was stationed here, Fort Riley also has a number of Custer monuments and museums. But I decide to skip them: If I want to contemplate an arrogant, overconfident, blowhard commander who got his men surrounded deep into enemy territory without enough backup or an exit strategy, I’ll catch Rummy’s next Pentagon press briefing. For my last afternoon in town, I want to visit Williams Elementary, the arts and science magnet school that along with the Brown Museum is one of Brown’s lasting institutional legacies in Topeka.

I’d like to say that after the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown, white Topekans realized the error of their ways and opened their arms to their black and Hispanic brothers and sisters. What happened instead is what happened across the Midwest: No longer allowed to segregate their schools, white Topekans quietly segregated their neighborhoods. When I attended Whitson Elementary, Landon Middle School, and Topeka West High School in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, they were not all-white, but they were almost all-white.

The irony is that since the courts were no longer carefully monitoring the separate-but-equal standard, the majority-minority schools were arguably worse in 1974 than the all-black schools of 1954. Topeka schools were “mostly separate and unequal.” To try to remedy this, three African-American attorneys in Topeka reopened the original Brown case.

The initial remedies focused on busing, which is ironic because Oliver Brown had objected to his daughter being bused across town to an all-black school instead of being allowed to attend her neighborhood school. Twenty-five years later, black parents, objecting to the inferiority of their neighborhood schools, wanted their kids bused across town to the almost all-white institutions.

The sad but predictable result of busing was more white flight. The day the first busload of Hispanic students arrived at Stout Elementary School, Topeka’s first private school—funded by wealthy white parents of former Stout students—opened its doors for business. Topeka’s almost all-white Catholic schools, which had previously been underenrolled, suddenly had long waiting lists. So many white families moved out of the city limits and into the Washburn Rural area that it ought to change its name to Washburn Suburb. This year, for the first time, Topeka schools have a majority of minority students, despite the fact that Topeka is still a majority-white city.

After two decades of busing and white flight, the federal courts finally mandated that Topeka build two magnet grade schools. Instead of busing’s stick, magnet schools like Williams offer a carrot approach to integration. Build a demonstrably superior school with more resources and better facilities in the minority neighborhood, and the white kids will come. I’m visiting Williams to see how the theory plays out in practice.

My first stop is the playground to see how the kids interact. It looks like a Benetton ad—black, white, and a few Asian and Hispanic kids throwing balls, swinging, and hop-scotching without any sign of racial stratification. I stand there for a long time with this stupid liberal grin on my face until it dawns on me that I’m an adult male with a notebook and a camera around his neck staring through a playground fence at little children, and I’d better move along before a teacher calls the cops.

The architectural style of the school doesn’t hold a candle to Monroe—it’s basically neo-upscale strip mall—but what catches my eye is a couple of glass rooms that look like greenhouses at the corners of the building. The secretary sends me to the principal’s office, and for the first time in my life it’s not because I’m in trouble. Martin Gies is a high-energy, take-charge, forward-leaning type of guy. He glows with pride about Williams. The demographic breakdown of the very large grade school—over 600 kids—is 50 percent white and 50 percent minority. There is a formula for admissions, but it hasn’t been a problem getting white students to enroll, Gies tells me.

Having arrived unannounced, I’m shy about asking for a tour. But before I know it, I’m chasing after him down the halls. There is a greenhouse filled with a variety of plants, a rainforest area with lizards and tropical birds, and a desert environment. The music room is better than the one I had in high school, and the school has over 400 computers. But beyond the facilities, which are magnificent, the thing I notice is that in every classroom we enter, the kids reach out to touch or shake hands with their principal. He’s like Bill Clinton working the rope line. We liked our grade-school principal all right, but no one ever reached out to shake his hand.

The feds paid to set up Williams, and as I leave, I start to think about reparations. The modern equivalent of 40 acres and a mule is a good education. Placing superior magnet schools, like Williams, in minority neighborhoods not only addresses that earlier broken promise, it also seems to fulfill, however tardily, the Brown mandate to integrate the nation’s schools “with all deliberate speed.” It has taken 50 years—Thurgood Marshall liked to say, “I’ve finally figured out what ‘all deliberate speed’ means. It means ’slow’ “—but sitting two blocks from the Brown Museum, Williams Elementary offers hope Topeka is finally closing a painful chapter in its history. As the city prepares to commemorate our past, the students at Williams prepare for our future.