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Charles I. Baston interview

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Brown v Board of Education of Topeka Oral History Project
Interview with Mr. Charles I. Baston
on May 14, 1992
Kansas State Historical Society Oral History Project Brown v Board of Education of Topeka
Interview conducted with Charles Baston by Jean VanDelinder on May 14, 1992.

J:  Were you born in Topeka?
Mr. Baston:  Oh no.  Born in Kansas?  That's an insult.  I wasn't born in Topeka. I was born in Missouri. I was born in Lee's Summit, Missouri. Do you know   where Lee's Summit is?

J:  Yes.  I used to live in Kansas City.
Mr. Baston:  You used to live in Kansas City?  I was born in Lee's Summit, Missouri. I had elementary and secondary education in Independence, Missouri. I    worked in Kansas City, Missouri, also in my thirties; thirty three. I attended school here in Topeka.

J:  High school or grade school?
Mr. Baston:  Partly high  school  here  in  Topeka  at  Kansas Vocational Tech in '33.

J:  Why did you come over here to go to high school?
Mr. Baston:  We felt that.....  I had a cousin at that time.  He and I decided we just wanted a chance to go to a boarding school to see what it was like.    That's why we came here to Topeka.

J:  Do you mind giving me your birth date?
Mr. Baston:  No, I don't mind.  I'm not ashamed of it.  If you aren't, I'm not.  4/24/17

J:  Do you have any brothers or sisters that are still
Mr. Baston:  Yes,  I  have  brothers.    I  have  brothers  in Harrisburg and Kansas City, Kansas, out in Indian Springs. I also have a full brother in Saginaw, Michigan. I have a sister in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

J:  Are either one of your parents still living?
Mr. Baston:  No.  My parents have been dead for years.

J:  Are they buried in Lee's Summit?
Mr. Baston:  Yes.  My mother has been dead almost as long as you are old.  Sixty-eight years to be exact.  I don't think you are quite sixty-eight yet.

J:  Are you married?
Mr. Baston:  No, I'm a widower.  I lost my spouse March 9, 1982.

J:  Do you have any children?
Mr. Baston:  I have one daughter in Los Angeles, California. It's a suburb of Los Angeles there, Carson, California. It's not in south central California. Not in south central Los Angeles, rather.

J:  After you came to school here in Topeka to go to the vocational school, what did you do after that?
Mr. Baston:  I returned to Kansas City after that and then I finished high school in Independence, Missouri. After that then I went to work. I worked for Postal Wade Glass Company in Kansas City, Missouri, for a while.

J:  I assume that when the war came you went into the service?
Mr. Baston:  You better believe it.   I was among the first draftees out of Independence, Missouri.

J:  How were you so lucky?
Mr. Baston:  There were a couple of us that had been raised together; Charles Brown and Charles Baston. We went to church together, we went to school together, and we more or less were pals for most of our young lives. We were drafted on the same day and sworn into the Army on the same day. Both of us spent, well, he made a career of it, and I spent four years, seven and a half months in the service myself.  We almost went all the way around the world. I served stateside and in Africa and Europe and in Panama, New Guinea, and the Philippine Islands.

J:  What did you do after the war then?  Did you come to Topeka at that time?
Mr. Baston:    Yes,  I came to Topeka after I got out of the service. I moved to Topeka and I've been here ever since.  Stuck here for forty-seven years.

J:  Why did you come to Topeka?
Mr. Baston:  I had two brothers-in-law that lived here and my wife decided that she would like to try Topeka. I decided that I did not want to live in Kansas City any longer. First of all, it was too noisy for me then and I wanted to get into a more country like setting and have peace and quiet, so I moved to Topeka.

J:  What was your occupation when you moved here?
Mr. Baston:  At that particular time I wasn't occupied.  After being here a couple of months, I went to work for the Topeka Air Force Base then. I went to work at the warehouse at the Topeka Air Force Base. I worked for SAC- Strategic Air Command. Then I worked for military transport command out there until fall of '46. Later I transferred from there to Oklahoma Air Command. This is across the road which is the old supply depot. I don't know if you know about the supply depot or not.

J:  No.
Mr. Baston:  You know where Forbes is now?  Across the road was a supply depot. I was transferred after it was phased out. I was transferred across the road and worked over there. Then I was a general warehouse foreman. I stayed over there until 1960. At that time we had taken careers. I was also a supply inspector and a supervisor of inspectors, etc. In 1957 we were notified that the supply depot was going to be closed and phased out. I stayed on rather than be transferred to Mobile, Alabama. I stayed on here.   I was transferred to the VA Hospital and then I started working at the VA Hospital. I stayed out at the VA Hospital until I retired in 1973. I put in 32 1/2 years of federal service, including my military service and then retired.

J:  What can you tell me about the Brown Case?  Were you a member of the NAACP?
Mr. Baston:  Oh yes I was.    I was a member of the executive committee.

J:  That's great.
Mr. Baston:  I would like to point out all of the things that I've heard about Brown v Topeka Board of Education. I've heard so many peoples' names, but I've never heard of the prime movers or the principles in the Topeka Board of Education. I don't know if you've heard about McKinley L. Burnett.

J:  I've heard his name but that's about all.  He's not mentioned that much.
Mr. Baston:  McKinley Burnett was the president of the local chapter of the NAACP. Leon King was the vice president of the local chapter of the NAACP. McKinley Burnett was able to acquire the services of Charles Bledsoe, an attorney here. They were the ones that were initially responsible for getting the Brown v Topeka Board of Education started. He started it and stayed on. Not withstanding the fact that the children were involved. I did not know the parents of Linda Brown. I'm going to give the name of Linda Brown numerous times. I'm not aware as to whether Linda Brown is familiar or acquainted with the persons who were involved in her case. What has concerned me, most of all, is that these people.... a lot of names have been mentioned that I have never heard of, that indicate that they were involved in or principles in the case. If they were, I would like to know where they were because I was involved with McKinley Burnett.
I can give you the names of some of our board members.  We had a Rev. U.S. Boen.  He was also a member of the executive committee. We had Samuel P. Wilson. He's behind also. He was a member of the executive committee. We had Lucinda Todd who served as secretary and was a member of the executive committee. We also had Lillian Gooden who was a member of the executive committee. Just to name a few, these are persons who met with the school board at that time in 1947-1948. We met up here at the board of education building on Eighth Street and sat up there at night sometime till midnight, sometimes early morning, waiting our opportunity to have our say before the Board. It was rather disgusting because a lot of times a board meeting would go through their agenda and then they would sit around and laugh or joke about something to try to extend the time. Maybe to find out if maybe we would become discouraged enough to leave. We never left. Then they turned around some time around 11:30- 12:00 o'clock and say, "Well, I believe I have a group here that has something they want to bring before the board." So we sat there and we would present the points of our case that we were interested in. Now we went through this month after month with the school board right here in Topeka. A very biased, with the exception of maybe one or two members.
We did have one member that stands out in my mind and he always will. I guess it's because he owned the theater then. It was a gentleman by the name of Dickerson that was on the board at that time. But now I forget what year it was that attorney Bledsoe left Topeka. After attorney Bledsoe left Topeka, then Charles Scott, attorney, took up where attorney Bledsoe left off.

J:  When did the NAACP decide to become involved  in this case? How did you decide to do this? Why did you decide to go on the school board? How did it come about?
Mr. Baston:  I was not at the initial meeting when they decided.  My only understanding is that the board members voted to become involved in it. I was at that initial meeting. I became a member of the NAACP in the latter part of 1946. When I became a member of the NAACP they were already involved with Brown v
Board of Education. Why they became involved was over the fact that we had segregation in the matter of education. We objected to this. The taxpayers in the community, not only minority taxpayers, but the taxpayers period, in this community were being short changed. They were not getting full value for their tax dollar. Minorities were being transferred from right by schools from North Topeka to South Topeka to go to school. They were hauled across the city from North Topeka to attend Buchanan School and Monroe School and Washington School. As I stated in many instances they were carted right by schools in their own neighborhood. As a matter of fact, we know of one family, I think it was the Ady family, and they lived right close to the school over in North Topeka. They were transferred away from that school. They were eligible to go that school. They were taxpayers in that community. The taxpayers were being short changed. That's all taxpayers, not only minorities and blacks had been short changed. The taxpayers in the city of Topeka.
This was it. The bussing thing, which was an additional cost to this community. The cost of ferrying kids across the city by bus. I want to add the kids out in West Topeka. They were bussed from West Topeka to Buchanan School. We also discovered that, especially in Buchanan School, because my daughter went to Buchanan School, there was a difference in the curriculum that they had. They had the kids at Buchanan School, that was the
one that I was well familiar with my-----two both
in there. All that started when they did not have school nursing service. They had no program for kids to learn music or anything like that. The things that they had in the other schools were not available for our kids that were going to predominantly black schools. For this reason the NAACP became aware of it and decided to pursue this matter.  So that we did.

J:  You started off by trying to talk to the school board?
Mr. Baston:  Yes.

J:  What kind of things did you say to them?
Mr. Baston:  When we went to the school board we would point out
to the school board that we felt that there was an inequity here and we were interested in finding out why they felt it was necessary not to allow these kids in elementary school to attend the regular schools in their community.

J:  What was their answer?
Mr. Baston:  They would sit around and make excuses just like in the instances that a lot of these excuses are made now when they ----- and they have various kinds of excuses. I don't recall in detail what some of them were. Then they had nothing valid or nothing of substance to say other than they felt that it more appropriate for their children to attend schools where the children were familiar with each other. Some kind of frivolous. Nothing that had any validity to it.

J:  What was the role of the attorneys, Bledsoe and then later Scott?
Mr. Baston:  They were exploring the legal aspects of it.  They were pursuing it from the legal aspect of it. So the attorneys were working, our attorneys here locally, were working with the attorneys of the NAACP. They were looking into legal documents and preparing to file briefs, etc. to bring these cases to a litigation. I think as best I can recall now, it seems as though they did have a hearing or two locally to try to see if they could come up with a settlement of some kind.  It was to no avail.

J:  Did you ever try to enroll your children in a white school?
Mr. Baston:  No, I didn't ever because my kid was going to school right three doors from where I lived.

J:  Buchanan is real close?
Mr. Baston:  Yes.  See I lived on Buchanan at that time and I lived three doors from school.  I had no reason to try to enroll my child. After my daughter finished Buchanan School then she automatically went to Boswell. There was no problem. She went from Boswell to Topeka High School. The question was why did we have to have segregation in the elementary education, especially where kids were being bussed away from their school to go to a predominantly black school.  That was the question.

J:  Do you remember a Mrs. Esther Brown being involved at all in the case? A white woman from Merriam, Kansas?
Mr. Baston:  Yes.  She was very instrumental in working with the NAACP. I knew her name was Brown but I didn' t remember because I think she was from Merriam, Kansas, and she was the wife of a doctor.

J:  I think so.
Mr. Baston:  She worked with  the local chapter of the NAACP to assist in bringing equitable arrangements for education for minorities. She had been here and she had spoken a time or two. Also, it seems to me that once she met with us in a board meeting and once or twice as I recall that she met with us in board meetings. Dr. Karl Menninger gave us real good support.

J:  Do you mean financial support or just support in the community?
Mr. Baston:  He gave us some financial support.  There were a lot of professional people who gave us financial support, because we had to raise $7,500.00 to file a brief with the Supreme Court. When we got that far along, of course there were not too many poor people to contribute too much money for the cause.

J:  You mentioned that a lot of the people that later on got all the credit through Brown. When did all these other people get involved?
Mr. Baston:    No, that's what surprises me, because I hear the names of a lot people and occasionally someone will call me and ask me who a certain name. I don't recall specific names.   They will ask me when certain people got involved and I tell them "I don't know." I was involved along with some of the principles until such time that the decree came down from the Supreme Court and that was May 17, 1954. I never heard of some these people. I know about the principles that stayed with the case. Those principles that I have named are those persons I know that were involved. We had national representatives down too. We had the National Secretary of the NAACP then, Laurie Wilkins. I'm trying to think if it was before or shortly after the decision. Then we had Thurgood Marshall, who later became a justice in the Supreme Court. We had him up in the auditorium of the historical building.

J:  Did Thurgood Marshall come in before the Brown decision was made? Was he here in early years or was this after it became a national case?
Mr. Baston:  It was after it became a national case.  I don't recall Thurgood Marshall being here but one time. It seems to me it was after the Supreme Court decision. But Laurie Wilkins was here on several occasions to more or less brief the attorneys and the executive committee on the progress of the case. Prior to the Supreme Court decision we had Charles Evers, brother of Medger Evers, here. He spoke at East Topeka Junior High.

J:  What do you think about the Brown decision?  Do you think it's been good for the community? Has it done what you thought it would do?
Mr. Baston:  Let  me  put  it  this  way.    It  has  not  yet accomplished what we hoped it would do. There is a reason for that too. Did you know that since May 17, 1954, in this United States, which is disgraceful, somewhere between eight and ten billion dollars have been spent in this nation to try in some way to circumvent the decision of the Supreme Court? That's a sad commentary for a so-called Christian nation. Number two - let's say that it not only has adversely affected minorities but it also has adversely affected the majorities as well from an economic standpoint. It's a sad commentary.   We have actually had one president that had courage enough to stand up and be counted in issue by executive order a decree to bring about a change to better race relationship in this country. That one person was Lyndon Baines Johnson and his executive order decreeing that there would no longer be discrimination in public accommodations. Nobody mentions that. We never had a president prior to that time and we've never had one since.

J:  Do you remember the years that the Brown case was being worked on, was there dissension in the black community? Were there people that didn't want this to happen?
Mr. Baston:  Oh yes.  We had dissension in the black community because we had people in the black community, primarily black teachers and their relatives, that felt that it would be a threat to their jobs. We had only one teacher we had full cooperation with. That was Lucinda Todd. Lucinda was a teacher in the public school system. The rest of them had some kind of fear. They were not supportive because they felt it was a threat to their jobs. They felt that if full integration came about they would not be integrated in the system. I can agree with why they had that feeling because sitting up there with the board. We sat up there with the school board one night until about 12:30 a.m., talking with the school board with this point. They were hiring teachers out of Arkansas and other areas of the south on certificates to teach. We had teachers here that had their degree finished and were teaching in the school system. Not all of them but some of them, but they would not integrate those teachers.

J:  So they would go outside the community to get inexperienced white teachers?
Mr. Baston:  Yes, they did.  They had hired white teachers out of the community, out of our area, into the school board to teach on certificate. They would not integrate our black teachers here in this community. That was another hassle that we had for years in this community.

J:  This was after the Brown decision?
Mr. Baston:  Yes, even after the Brown decision.  That was for teachers who had been in the system for years. I could understand the sense of insecurity that they had. Of course, in the black community, we had persons when we would walk the streets would try to solicit membership in the NAACP. We were called the little pressure group that was interfering with the school system and especially the black schools because there were those people who wanted to maintain black schools per se. We had a struggle within and without the system. These people were not aware of the fact that they were being short changed dollar wise.

J:  Why did they want  to maintain the  segregated schools?
Mr. Baston:  The reason they wanted to maintain it was because they felt that we had black teachers who were qualified, and if they integrated the schools, the black teachers were going to be out. For that cause they wanted to maintain black schools. Also the NAACP tried to point out to them that we live in society, and society is not all black. Society is not all white. It is not all Hispanic. We have to learn to live together. The way that you learn to live together is to start down when they are small children. If you teach small children to learn to live together when they are down on the farm then they as they grow, they will grow and learn to work together, live together, and to get along. But you cannot take a child and let that child come up through elementary school, and in some instances, in junior high school, because these are the formative ages, and bring him up to high school. Then you slam him in high school. A high school that had one principal, had two principals up here at Topeka High School at that time. Most of your blacks went to Topeka High School. We had a Professor Caldwell up there. We had segregated sports at Topeka High School. During that time McFarland was the Superintendent of Schools. Caldwell was the Assistant Superintendent over black teachers and over black education in Topeka.   It was just a ridiculous situation when you think about it. I thought about it then and when you think back about it now. It was a ridiculous situation, ludicrous.

J:  Did Caldwell pretty much dictate the way he wanted things to be?
Mr. Baston:  Yes, under McFarland he did.  Then I'm told that when he left here he went from here to Washington state and went into a integrated school system in Washington state. I've often wondered how he fit in that kind of setting.

J:  When did Caldwell leave here?
Mr. Baston:  I don't recall the year that he left.

J:  You mentioned your daughter went to Buchanan.  Do you think, and there is a move back to this now, that the races are better off separated in their own schools? That they learn more about their races in an all black school and an all white school.
Mr. Baston:  No, I think not.  I don't need to go to school to learn anything about my race.   Basically I'm a person who likes to.....there is one race on the face of the earth. That's the human race. There are many ethnic groups in the human race. Sometime in life we will rub shoulders with someone else, so we must learn to live together, to get along together. We have not learned quite well enough yet. I think Los Angeles gives a clear picture of it.

J:  Other cities also have the same....
Mr. Baston:  Well, other cities but I think the most glaring...I could come close and tell you Topeka is no different. See, I've had problems here in Topeka. I own this property, these lots that I built this house on. I had difficulty in getting a loan to build this house.  Not because I did not have a job
and was not able to.....My wife and I both worked and our income was better than the average person's income, white or black, in this community. When I went to Capitol Federal Savings and Loan and sat down and talked with them they would only go so far. I had two white employees that were working for me at this particular time. They did not own property, but they knew where property was. I signed a loan for them to get a loan to build houses. Two guys, one named Leonard Mankay, who is now retired from the fire department here, and the other named Clarence Jambo. Both of them were federal employees. I supervised both of them. I had to sign for their loan to be approved. The vice president of Capitol Federal Savings and Loan was Hugo Milson at that time. I pointed this out to them.

J:  What did he say?
Mr. Baston:  The same thing that you hear all the time.  "Well, Mr. Baston, I do not want you to think that we have a biased policy here. We try to be fair across the board." My response to him was "You said it, I didn't say that because I happen to know that you have a biased policy." I gave him the information and all he had to do was go look at his records to see that what I told him was factual.

J:  Did you get the loan then?
Mr. Baston:  Oh yes, I got a loan because my contractor told me that whether I got a loan or not he was going to build my house. And I did. I did not get a full loan from Capitol Federal. I got a partial loan from Capitol Federal. The contractor carried the rest and we paid it off ahead of time. That has been 37 years ago. Those are the things that you encounter. The other thing that you encountered in this community was when we were trying to find lots or tried to buy a house, a decent place to live. The realtors would even ask, "Why don't you try to find something in your own neighborhood, in your own community?" I said, "All of Topeka is my community and all of Topeka is my neighborhood. Wherever I can afford to buy or wherever I can afford to live, that is my neighborhood." In my travels, I've traveled the south extensively, Topeka is worse than the deep south.

J:  As far as racism goes?
Mr. Baston:    As far as being honest and fair.  I go south every year.  Last year I was visiting two months with my sister in the south.   What I found with those people there, some of the most courteous white people and the most honest white people.  More so then I have right here in Topeka.  I have a lot of friends here in Topeka.   I have a lot of white friends, that are equal to any black friends that I have.    I'm just  talking about  the public  in general.   Most of my friends in this area were white friends because I knew no black people in Topeka when I moved here.  My association was with people that I met when I was working for the federal  government  and  they  were  white.    I maintained their friendship over the years.  That is why I say that it's nice for people to learn to live with....  I dispel this idea.  I don't care where there is racism.  People talk about racism. We have black people who talk about racism and we have white people who talk about racism.  Blacks do not have a monopoly on racism.  Neither do whites but in some instances both sides are racist.  Now I'm a racist.  I'm for the human race not based on ethnic background.  I believe in the human race.  I love the human race.  I love people regardless of the color of their skin, the pigmentation of their skin, the texture of hair, etc.  People are people and God created people.  Man didn't make people.  I go back to McKinley Burnett, Leon King, Charles Bledsoe, Charles Scott.  These were basic beliefs that they carried.   For that cause they were willing to pressure integration in the schools and the school system.  I knew of Oliver Brown.

J:  Was he not active then in the NAACP?
Mr. Baston:  I think that, somebody got his membership.  That I don't know who it even was that got his membership.

J:  So you never met him then?
Mr. Baston:  I never met him personally.

J:  McKinley Burnett was president of the NAACP for a long time.   How long was he president, do you recall?
Mr. Baston:  I don't recall.  He was president when I came in.  I came in 1945. He was president of the NAACP, he was a member of our church. McKinley Burnett stayed president until he began to become ill. Then of course Leon King was the vice president. I don't know the total years McKinley Burnett was president of the NAACP. The only thing that I know of and I'm totally aware of is the fact that he was the prime mover in the Brown v Topeka Board of Education case.

J:  That is never mentioned.
Mr. Baston:  I think that these names need to be listed up so
people would know about McKinley Burnett. He has a son that lives here, Marcus Burnett. He lives here in East Topeka. He has three daughters. One lives in Kansas City, Marita Davis. Two live elsewhere out on the east coast, I think. That has been my concern every year and especially around the 17th of May. On May 17th, after their decision, that became McKinley Burnett's personal holiday and he would not work for anyone on that day. That was his personal holiday.
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