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The Legacy of Frederick Douglass in Kansas

Posted by Megan Macken (Digital Archivist) on Jun 14, 2017

Frederick Douglass 1868Born a slave in Maryland, Frederick Douglass became one of the most famous intellectuals of his time. Douglass, like his colleague John Brown, was a leader in the antislavery movement, and the two worked together in 1858, as this letter shows. Douglass also advocated for public schools to be free and open to all children. As a child, he was only literate because he had furtively taught himself to read. Sometimes, when his owners weren't looking, he asked free children if they would stop playing for a minute to help him decipher words. Douglass believed that his education had led to his own freedom, and likewise, it was essential to the freedom of African American people. Despite the successful abolition of slavery--traditionally celebrated on June 19th or Juneteenth--within his lifetime, injustice toward African Americans has persisted after his death.

A 1902 Kansas Supreme Court case pivoted on a school presumably named for him in Topeka. Lowman Hill School had served both black and white children until a fire destroyed it in 1900 (and its temporary location again in 1901).* When Lowman Hill was rebuilt, African American children were instead sent to Douglass (or Douglas) School, a two-room building without running water, while white children attended the new brick school (with running water) so spacious that its second story went unused.

Douglas or Douglass School, Topeka, Kansas in Kansa Memory.orgMore than fifty years after Lowman Hill Elementary Lowman Hill School was segregated, in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education legally required all schools to be integrated. During that trial, the Board of Education's arguments cited Frederick Douglass. They maintained that because African Americans like Frederick Douglass had been resilient--emerging from segregation and many other obstacles as great Americans--segregated schools did not harm children. This did not persuade the Supreme Court, which ultimately decided that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" and that the children had been "deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."

Integration was not a total victory. African American schoolteachers in Topeka were not integrated into white schools along with the students. Instead they lost their jobs (see also here). Such inequality continued to play out well into the 1980s and 1990s, when the Brown v. Board case was reopened. Witnesses during the trial reported that African American teachers were discouraged from promoting black viewpoints, even in school plays; one was "permanently suspended" for his persistence in trying. Although high schools had been integrated for many years, some, like Topeka High School, were internally segregated with separate teams and activities for white and black students. Black teachers were also still being placed in black schools, actively separated from white schools and white teachers. Although the city of Topeka had become much more residentially integrated, especially by the late 1980s, the schools had not; in the early 1990s new west side schools had a 5% population of African American students, while on the other side of town schools like Belvoir had a 70% population of black students. Other factors such as attendance boundaries, school construction, school closing, bussing, administrative policies, test scores, and community perceptions of Topeka Schools were presented by the plaintiff as supporting evidence of ongoing segregation.

Wendell R. Godwin, Superintendent of Schools in Topeka, Kansas from 1951 to 1961

This case, known as "Brown III" went all the way to the Supreme Court. Ultimately an appeals court ruled in 1992 that the Topeka School District had never fully achieved desegregation. In order to comply with the ruling, the Topeka Schools built three magnet schools to increase racial diversity in the district. One of these, Scott Dual Language Magnet, now delivers a bilingual eduation. In 1992 Monroe Elementary School, the segregated school at the center of the Brown v. Board case, was designated a national park.

Never having been to school, Frederick Douglass did not know what it was to have his education taken from him by fire, although his own house was destroyed by arson in 1872, or what it was like to attend an integrated school. What Frederick Douglass would make of the 122 years of history since his death, or the discussions on equality and education today, is impossible to know. Douglass did, however, record his own legacy in his own words, which still resonate powerfully today. In a speech preserved as "What the Black Man Wants" in the pamphlet "The Equality of All Men before the Law," Douglass himself said, "What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice."

*Kansas residents can access Newspapers.com for free here - please click here to log in, then return to this page and click on the links for access.


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