Topeka’s Dubious Achievement Award

Click here for today’s slide show.

Linda Brown’s all-black grade school has been turned into the Brown Museum

Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.— Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Except for those of us who grew up there, very few people remember that the full name of the most important Supreme Court decision of the 20th century, which spelled the beginning of the end for Jim Crow, was Oliver L. Brown et al.v. Board of Education of Topeka et al. May 17 marks the 50th anniversary of Brown, and to commemorate the occasion, the National Park Service is opening the Brown Museum at what was formerly the Monroe School, the all-black grade school that Linda Brown, Oliver’s 7-year-old daughter, was forced to attend instead of her neighborhood (all-white) grade school.

A national roster of political and entertainment bigwigs is expected to attend the opening, including, fervent speculation in Topeka has it, President Bush. After all, what Supreme Court case better exemplifies compassion, uniting-not-dividing, and leaving-no-child-behind than Brown? I have returned to my hometown to see how the preparations for Topeka’s moment in the media spotlight are going.

I’m not sure how to feel about the big day. Having the Brown Museum placed in my city is at best a dubious achievement. The reason Oliver Brown, his daughter Linda, and Topeka have come to personify the case is that we were the law-abiding segregationists.

Chronologically, the push for Brown first began with Briggs v. Eliot, a case from South Carolina, where black educational facilities were separate and woefully unequal. Cases in Delaware, Virginia, and the District of Columbia followed. The NAACP decided to target Topeka, asking black parents—like Oliver Brown and 12 others—to file a case, because Topeka schools, while separate, were in fact equal. In 11 previous desegregation cases from 1881-1949, the Kansas courts had consistently ruled against segregation in cases where circumstances were unequal, but they had upheld it under equal conditions. Thus, Kansas was the perfect test case for overturning the entire 1896 Plessy doctrine of “separate but equal.” The Supreme Court consolidated all five cases (“et al.”) under the name Brown, and the rest is history.

This feeling of ambivalence is not particular to me. Kansas’ attorney general refused to defend Topeka before the Supreme Court. Instead, he sent Paul E. Wilson, a greenhorn assistant attorney general who had never previously argued a case at the appellate level. The title of Wilson’s memoir about the case sums up his sentiment: A Time To Lose.

The first question I put to Topeka’s mayor, James McClinton, is how he feels it reflects on Topeka that it has come to personify the Brown case, even though other cities from other states had been involved.

“We are pretty proud that they used the Topeka scenario to go forward with the case rather than the others,” he said, then paused a moment to reconsider. “It’s not necessarily that we are proud that it all happened, but we’re proud that the decision came out the way it did.”

As he is answering my question, I can’t help but wonder who he means when he says “we” and “they.” Race issues give rise to problems with antecedents. I decide to throw PC caution to the wind with my follow-up:

I guess the obvious question is how do you feel to be Topeka’s first black mayor during the 50th anniversary of Brown?

As his eyes widen and his mouth opens and shuts without a word coming out, I realize he didn’t think that was the obvious question. But he recovers quickly: “You know it feels pretty good. It is pretty nostalgic that this would have happened at this moment. We’ve been going through this process to select a mayor. We didn’t even think about what would happen in ‘04. On Jan. 6 I was sworn in. At the first meeting, I asked what we were going to be doing for Brown v. Board. And everyone looked back at me with no response. There really was no plan. So I put preparations for the Brown anniversary at the top of the priority list.”

The “process” McClinton is referring to is Topeka’s less publicized version of the California recall election. Butch Felker, the previous mayor, was driven from office under threat of ouster proceedings involving a campaign-finance scandal. The nine-member city council had to select a new mayor. Anyone could run. Forty or so did, including one man who’d been accused of murder (he was acquitted for reasons of self-defense), another of solicitation of murder (he plea-bargained to criminal trespassing—six months in jail), and a professional clown. McClinton, in the Schwarzenegger role, had a Topeka Capital Journal story about domestic abuse allegations dropped on him a week before the election, and Mrs. McClinton—like Maria Shriver, a very intelligent, beautiful, and strong-willed woman—jumped to his defense and saved his chances. (It didn’t hurt that as a former city council member, he had helped several of the current members get elected.) He won by a 5-to-4 vote.

Later in the interview, I teased McClinton, a Democrat, that he will have a lot to talk about with Bush, since they both won office by the same tally. He pretended not to hear me, which I think bodes well for his chances to win a citywide vote in April 2005.

The mayor predicts that 150,000 people will visit the Brown Museum every year, a figure that, even if it is off by a wide margin, will greatly increase tourist revenue for a locale that is, to put it politely, not exactly a regular on Condé Nast Traveler’s Top 10 Cities list.

I figure a local boy makes (semi)good like me should help out when he can, so I ask the mayor where he thinks tourists should dine in the Brown Museum area. His suggestion is Constantino’s at 1003 SE Quincy, a family run Italian restaurant. The food there is so excellent I forget the restaurant closes at 8 p.m. At 8:15, I am the last patron, with an anxious waiter hovering over me. Topeka is the city that never goes to sleep late.

The best place to stay, as far as room rates and quality of food is concerned, is the Polly Bed & Breakfast. The only drawback is that guests are required to explain to the proprietress why she has yet to meet the girlfriend and why the book is taking so long to finish. Also, if you stay longer than five days, you’ll end up mowing the lawn, but at $30 an hour, yard work pays better than journalism. The guest list is rather exclusive, however, limited to blood relatives and famous politicians. (In true bipartisan, national unity, political groupie form, Ma Polly has offered invitations to both the Bush and Kerry camps to stop by for a fund-raiser. It pleases my Anybody But Bush heart to say that early indications are Kerry is interested.)

For everyone else visiting the Brown Museum, the Ramada Inn Downtown is your best bet when it comes to price ($80 a room), quality, and location. The manager told me they are focusing on Brown travelers, having discovered that the single most-searched word on the Web related to Topeka tourism is “Brown.” But even if the Ramada Inn were terrible, which it is not, I’d feel a moral, even a fiduciary, responsibility to promote it. We had some rather wild post-prom parties there when I was in high school, and I’m fairly certain some of the renovations the Ramada has recently undergone are related to my exploits, particularly the carpet in Room 412. Terribly sorry about that peppermint schnapps stain, guys.