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Reflections on hopes and dreams deferred after Brown v. Board of Education

Twin Cities residents who lived it tell of their experiences before, during and after the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools.

Lucille Jones, who celebrates her 85th birthday this week, has had numerous connections to Minneapolis Public Schools over the years, including a career of more than 30 years as an administrator at the long lamented Minneapolis Central High.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

When Minnesota schoolchildren learn about Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court 60 years ago Saturday, it’s as a chapter in history. Rarely do our children learn about the integration of Minnesota schools and the Civil Rights era from members of their own community.

And with schools throughout the country more segregated than at any time in history, it’s probably hard to imagine that the very personal pain and hope that accompanied Brown — and its slow and reluctant implementation — was lived experience for people near and dear to our kids.

This week MinnPost reached out to a number of African American Twin Cities residents to ask for personal recollections of their experiences surrounding the decision. Edited versions of those conversations follow.

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The images that accompany this story are from Minneapolis Public Schools archives and depict the schools mentioned by our subjects. Two of the schools in question were razed years ago as integration efforts reshaped the district. 

Those who would like to further observe the historic anniversary are invited to attend an event posted by the Minnesota African American Museum Friday, May 23, from 5-8 p.m. at the Capri Theatre, 2027 W. Broadway, in Minneapolis. Scholars from University of Minnesota will be on hand to talk about the Harlem Renaissance and the infamous black doll experiment that Thurgood Marshall wrote so movingly about in Brown.

Lucille Jones

Jones, who celebrates her 85th birthday this week, has had numerous connections to Minneapolis Public Schools over the years, including a career of more than 30 years as an administrator at the long lamented Minneapolis Central High.

Jones is the mother of two MPS graduates, the artist Seitu Jones and Bennice Young, who is currently the principal at Elizabeth Hall International school in north Minneapolis. Other notable Hall principals of the past include Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and Johnson’s grandmother.

Jones’ children began attending MPS schools in 1957, three years after Brown but 15 years before the state court suit that forced the district to begin taking steps to desegregate.

I’m from Chicago. I lived in a neighborhood that was all black and I went to school that was all black and I didn’t want that for my children. I thought the school should be mixed.

My folks were from Mississippi. My mother had two sisters. My grandfather was afraid to let those girls go into town. So he built a schoolhouse on his property and hired a teacher. My grandmother lived in such fear we couldn’t get her to talk about it.

Courtesy of Minneapolis Public Schools
A scene from the 1960 groundbreaking at Elizabeth Hall International.

My grandparents moved to Chicago from Mississippi because there was no education for my father after a certain age. They moved to a neighborhood that was all black but because of his test scores he went to an all-male school, Tilden Tech.

The school we went to was all-black because of the area we lived in. The area we lived in was very, very nice. But Chicago was segregated. I’m sure there were kids in Chicago who attended mixed schools.

I moved here in 1949. My first child was born in 1951. My son was in Sister Kenny for a while. They thought he had polio but he had something called Guillain-Barre Syndrome. He was paralyzed. He lost the use of his legs and his arms. My mind was so full of trying to make sure he got the full use of his limbs back I wasn’t thinking about much of anything else.

We lived over north then. When we moved on the south side, my son was maybe in the second or third grade. My daughter would’ve been in kindergarten. The elementary school that was in our neighborhood was half a block away. It was mixed. There were not many black kids there but it was mixed.

We had an incident with my daughter when she was in the first grade. I was working. My husband worked at the post office and got home earlier than I did. He had gotten called up to the school. She had had a problem with the little white boy.

The teacher was going to punish her by making her move her seat. She refused to get out of her seat. My husband went up to the school and she told him there had been a problem and the teacher was going to punish her and not the boy.

He never did tell me what he said to the teacher but he brought my daughter home and sent her back the next day. I know there were more incidents but the kids wouldn’t talk about it, they wanted to handle it themselves.

I did talk to the school social worker after the incident with my daughter and told her if it happened again I would want to have a meeting with her, the teacher and the parents. They never called us again.

I never felt like kids were denied an education, that they were forced to go to a segregated school then. We had to talk to the children. There was a lot of publicity, a lot of talk when things were changing.

There was a time when the children were in high school when I called a meeting of the mothers of the black children. Something must’ve happened but I don’t remember what.

After my daughter graduated she worked out in private industry. Minneapolis Public Schools wanted more minority teachers. They developed a program with one of the colleges in St. Paul so the minority people who had a degree could go to school for a couple of years and then teach in Minneapolis.

Gary Cunningham

Cunningham is a member of the Met Council, Chief Program Officer at the Northwest Area Foundation and, of course, husband of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. Long before any of those titles, though, he was an associate superintendent for Minneapolis Public Schools, and before that, an MPS graduate. He began attending a majority-white school that has since been torn down — four years before MPS was forced to begin integrating schools.

I moved from over north in 1968 or 1969 — it was the year after the riots actually. We moved over to Phillips, which was white working class and Native American. I went to a little school called Greeley.

Courtesy of Minneapolis Public Schools
Greeley Elementary in 1916.

There was boy in my class whose name was James Cunningham and he happened to be black. When the teacher left for some reason one of the kids said, “We got niggers in this class.” These are first-graders. This had already happened to James. They lined up to punch me in the face one by one.

Gary Cunningham
Gary Cunningham

When the teacher came back and I was crying and I told her what happened she said, “Oh no, that didn’t happen.” I didn’t really know what a nigger was, but I knew I was being teased for the color of my skin and I knew that it mattered.

I went to Minneapolis Central High School where there was a magnet that was started to fight white flight and segregation. They brought in all these students from all over.

And it changed the educational experience completely. I had all these friendships across all these groups. It was a rich experience. There were issues, and race mattered. But I would not have made those friendships without that rich environment.

I think if you think about Brown and what it was after, it was that richness. It really helped shape the next generation of American politics.

Nekima Levy-Pounds

A professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School, Levy-Pounds directs the Community Justice Project, an award-winning civil rights law clinic. In addition to serving on the board of the Minneapolis Foundation, she writes and speaks powerfully about race, equity and education. The mother of five, she has been forced to advocate for her own children’s education in ways white parents typically don’t need to. 

Nekima Levy-Pounds
Nekima Levy-Pounds

For three decades in the aftermath of the decision, schools in cities across the country, and particularly in Los Angeles where I grew up, remained segregated. I went off to boarding school in New England at the age of 14 so I could receive a quality education.

I think the Supreme Court’s call for “all deliberate speed” still rings true to this day because there has been some progress but not enough and not soon enough. There has been a reticence to make sure that all children, regardless of their race or ethnicity, have access to a quality education.

Beyond that, we have seen a scaling back of the number of teachers of color. Predominantly African-American schools had high numbers of African-American teachers. In the aftermath of the decision, many of the schools in those neighborhoods were closed and those teachers lost their jobs. I still don’t think we have made up the difference from those losses.

So in some ways Brown moved us forward integrating our society. But one could also argue that in some ways that set us back.

Theatrice (T.) Williams

A former member of the Minneapolis School Board, Williams has worked in district schools as a substitute teacher in recent years. The oldest of his three children started school in MPS in 1968; the youngest finished in 1989.

For me integration was the kind of thing I thought about in terms of political and economic power. I recognized where political power was. Those people who were making political decisions about implementation were going to be acting in the best interest of their kids — who did not look like mine. I figured if my kids were in a place where their kids were it would make it harder to leave them out.

I want to make it as difficult as possible for you to discriminate against me and to make it as obvious as possible if you do. My support for integration has been along those lines. Not necessarily that my kid is better educated if he sits next to a white student.

We forgot about some of the stuff we had to endure back in the good old days. They never lived in the ’50s as I did. When we came to Minneapolis in 1965, North High School had for many, many years been integrated. But the black students did not have the same opportunities at that school as the white students did. There were no black girls on the polar dance team.

My kids never went to a school where the majority of students were of color. There are so many more of them now than when my kids were in school. The parents are so much younger now. Now people with kids in school for the first time they may be 20 years old.

When I substitute taught recently I went to schools on the north side where 90 percent were African American. That was never the case when my kids were in school.

Classroom behavior is more of an issue now than when our kids were in school. The other thing that was different in the case of the community is the gangs were not so prevalent as they are now. We never had an issue of our kids being exposed to an organized gang, not that they didn’t exist.

Our strategy has been to move the bodies. So we move the black and brown bodies into buildings. When charter schools came, it became an opportunity to get my kid out of those schools. In many cases it had less to do with academics than with feeling safe.

We know where students of color are more than 35 percent, white kids are not going to stay. So they end up in communities with very, very little power. If we’re going to have a neighborhood or community school we’re going to have to support it.

Mahmoud El-Kati

A professor emeritus of history at Macalester College, El-Kati was born in Savannah, Georgia, and lived a number of places before enrolling in one of only three historically black colleges in the North, Wilberforce University in Ohio. The school is named after the abolitionist William Wilberforce. El-Kati is host of “Reflections and Connection,” broadcast at 6:30 Tuesdays on KMOJ.
Mahmoud El-Kati

Here’s the way I think about stuff. In post-war America is when our society and the leaders of our society made some decisions about the race thing and decided it needed to change. The Cold War was an issue. But the major factor was the Third World revolution.

There had always been a Civil Rights movement here from the start of the 20th century. There were lawsuits against all kinds of institutions, medical schools, etc. But the first big decision was Brown versus Board of Education. It was the first meaningful way the government reacted seriously to the Negro issue. It did so by overturning Plessy versus Ferguson.

And then came the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s all of a piece. What it did was defeat officially the cast system. We don’t talk about this, but black people lived under a cast system. So the 1964 law lifted the veil on that system.

I don’t think it’s personal, it’s political. It has to do with power and how it’s shared and not shared. And with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that’s when society really began to change.

Whatever I’m doing as a teacher or whatever you want to call me I’m driven by the social justice question. What I fear is another generation of children — white, black, what have you — will fall into the trap of thinking we solved the race problem.

Education is a system of indoctrination. What education should be is liberating the children. But you can’t do that with the curriculum we have now. There will always be an achievement gap so long as that’s in place.

State Sen. Jeff Hayden

The father of two, DFLer Hayden represents Senate District 62, which encompasses several blocks on either side of the swath of Interstate 35W that runs from downtown Minneapolis to 50th Street. Before he was elected to the Senate in 2011, he occupied the House seat now held by Susan Allen. He was among the first Minneapolis African American students bused to a school outside his neighborhood by court order.

Sen. Jeff Hayden

I really think the reason Brown v. Board of Education was pivotal was because the schools people were going to were substandard and communities around them were poor. So long as the community is strong and healthy, it makes sense to have a community school even if it is majority one race.

So here’s the question for me: How do you build a healthy and vibrant community that supports good schools? I lost 50 percent of the African American people in my district between 2000 and 2010 because they moved to the suburbs because of the perception of better schools.

I don’t think it’s as easy anymore to say, you put these kids in integrated schools and they’ll do well. People automatically think suburban schools with predominately white people are automatically better than predominantly minority communities.

I’m 48 this year. I started school in 1971. That was during the time right before busing started. I remember distinctly I was in the fourth grade. We lived over near north. I was six blocks from Lincoln but bussed to Jefferson on Hennepin.

For me personally it was enriching. I have good feelings about it. I do remember friends in Kenwood wanted to swap their pastrami and rye for my free hotdog. I didn’t get what that meant to them, but I remember it.

It probably would’ve been better for my community and easier for me to walk six blocks to Lincoln. I just remember getting on the bus and going to school a long way from my house.

My wife is three-fourths white and one-fourth Latina. My kids are very comfortable in their skins and have a great mixture of friends.

I’ll give you an example: So at prom, we go to the Sculpture Garden to take pictures. There’s a striking young man in a tuxedo. So the next day I said, ‘Wow that’s a striking couple.’ And my son said, ‘Oh, that’s Susan and Jenny.’

This is DeLaSalle, and they’re just fine. I still think we have a long ways to go as adults, but I’m hopeful about the kids.