America…1954: Brown V. The Board of Education

September 2014

We’ve journeyed back over to Kansas for a few days for some more history, beginning at Monroe Elementary School , the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Established in 2004 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court Decision it is the only site in the National Park Service system dedicated to a Supreme Court case. The site on which the (formerly all black) school sits has an interesting history in and of itself (the land was originally obtained through a homestead claim), which includes ties to the Underground Railroad.

Race in America

The school is divided into five exhibit areas chronicling not only the case itself but what had come before and what has come since. It also includes a classroom set up from 1954 and a bookstore with many relevant publications. We began our tour inside the main auditorium with a thirty minute film.

The movie – Race and the American Creed, coupled with photos and displays, tells the story of slavery, racism and segregation in America. Even among those who felt slavery was unfair, it was still believed that blacks were inferior to whites.

In memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, in imagination they are dull, tasteless. ~ Thomas Jefferson

In the movie, an old story teller, Mr. Owens, shares what he knows with Nicole, the teenaged granddaughter of a friend. Covering slavery, Japanese interment camps, segregation, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights movement and more, the movie really highlights a disturbing history, and provides an overview of the issues chronicled within the other exhibits. The link above goes to a transcript of the movie (though it’s far more powerful to see it), if interested.

The Doll Test

After the movie we stopped into the bookstore/gift shop talking to the Ranger (who had coincidentally enough done a stint at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, so lots of chat about back home and a reminder to check out some of the local NPS sites that we haven’t hit yet). Just outside, in the main hallway I noticed a display case containing one faded baby doll and stepped out to check it out.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

I read the accompanying plaque and though it didn’t fully explain the experiment, I instantly knew the premise, having seen it repeated on an episode of Oprah years ago. In the test, Drs Kenneth & Mamie Clark showed two dolls – a white doll and a black doll – to 200 children, including 16 black children. They were asked a series of questions about the dolls – which they preferred, which was pretty, which was nice, which was good, which was bad, etc. In most circumstances all of the positive traits (as well as their preference for a doll) were assigned to the white doll, even by the black children.

I remember watching the episode of Oprah all those years ago, and being struck by how early the negative self image began in black children. It was devastating watching child after child pick the black doll as the bad or ugly or mean doll and then be asked the last question – “which doll is like you?” Each black child looked confused and sad as they chose the bad/ugly/mean doll as the one that was like them. You can find multiple videos of this test repeated, and the results are nearly always the same. White doll = good. Black doll = bad.

The Clarks’s work, originally part of the Briggs v. Elliot court case was key in showing that segregated schools were not only not equal, but clearly detrimental to the psychological development of black children.

Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Brown v. the Board of Education, was the result of five cases (including Briggs v. Elliot) merged as part of a national strategy in fighting against school segregation. The merged case reached the Supreme Court in 1954 and when the Court ruled unanimously on May 17, 1954 that separate was not equal, it was the catalyst for desegregation and the furthering of civil rights movements all over the country. But it was not a battle easily won and the ruling, which did little to change public opinion, was only the beginning. Integration would not come quickly. In fact, one county in Virginia opted to close its schools for five years rather than comply. They were later ordered by the Supreme Court to reopen and integrate. Total integration wasn’t completed until 1963, nearly 10 years after the Supreme Court ruled against segregation.

1954 Classroom

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

The Original Fight for Marriage Equality

Though the focus of the site is Brown v. Board of Education, the museum covers other racial history. As one half of an interracial marriage I was stunned by this panel about Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage throughout the US in 1967 (although Alabama, which was the last state to amend its constitution to reflect the ruling, did not do so until 2000). Obviously even prior to meeting and marrying my husband I was familiar with the case. However, it certainly took on a more personal meaning when we were married in 2010, knowing that less than fifty years earlier, in some parts of this country, our marriage would have still been illegal (the 50th anniversary is still two years away).

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

But what I found most disturbing about this piece was the second section, the part that didn’t specifically deal with Loving, but instead with a more recent event. In case it’s too small to read, – from the board:

In 2011, the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in Kentucky openly banned interracial couples from their church after a 9-6 vote. The church stated that the banning of interracial couples was to “promote great unity” among its members and the community. Interracial couples were banned from church services and functions, with the exception of funerals.

Should you think that may have been a typo on my part, that vote happened in 2011 – 4 years ago. The pastor of the church eventually overturned the ruling, but it was still stunning to read about. While I don’t live in complete denial of racial issues, I suppose I thought we had come further than we have. Though remembering the extreme backlash over a sweet Cheerios commercial should have had me knowing better, and serve as a reminder to anyone who thinks the folks at Gulnare were a rare exception.

I’m so grateful to all who fought before me so that a fight wasn’t necessary for me to marry my husband and have been happy to help in the fight for others. I know that some people balk at the idea of comparing the more recent struggle of the LGBT community for marriage equality to the fight for interracial marriage, though I can’t for the life of me figure out why. It doesn’t feel any different to me. I was working in the Massachusetts State Senate when marriage equality became a reality in Massachusetts. It was both an exciting and depressing time – exciting to watch people gain freedoms they’d been denied, and depressing to see the vitriol spewed from some opponents (including having personally fielded a phone call that ended with a thinly veiled death threat). I’m still proud to be from the first state to legally recognize same sex marriage and glad to have been part of the movement that eventually resulted in another historic Supreme Court victory.

Reflections

There was so much at Munroe to explore that I couldn’t possibly chronicle it all, but it was certainly a worthwhile and educational visit. Truth be told, I found myself overwhelmed in the exhibits, exploring some of the most shameful history of our country, knowing that it isn’t nearly as long ago as I’d wish and that we haven’t come nearly as far as we need to. But I was also moved by the many individuals who fought for equality (often to their own peril) and worked to further the rights of those long denied. I can only hope that we continue the work of those before us, and ensure that the fight for equality doesn’t stop until it truly represents all.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

****************************************************************************************
From August 12 – October 15, 2014 my husband and I traveled the northern United States in my Honda Civic. Cross Country Civic was started (and will eventually be completed) to document our cross country adventure. All comments and questions welcome.

Independence Harry

Leaving St. Louis, we drove across Missouri to our next destination, Independence, and explored the life and Presidency of Harry S Truman. Our tour of “all things Truman” spanned decades of his life, from the drug store where a young Truman once worked, to his final resting place at his Presidential Library and Museum. It was a great day of historical exploration.

September 2014

CLINTON’S SODA FOUNTAIN

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

We began our day by stopping into Clinton’s Soda Fountain. Though this iteration of Clinton’s has only been in existence since 1988, it was at this site that a fourteen year old Harry Truman worked his first job at Clinton’s Drug Store. The drug store, thankfully, is not overwhelmingly Truman the way Springfield was all Lincoln all the time.

Here’s a sneak peek of the Presidential Museum with its display regarding Harry’s time at Clinton’s. You can see that the new captures the spirit of the old.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

We grabbed a quick drink and snack at the counter before heading off to the NPS Visitor’s Center.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

HARRY S. TRUMAN NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE

The Harry S. Truman National Historic Site is comprised of multiple locations. In addition to the NPS Visitor’s Center, there is (the Truman Family Farm), his home with wife Elizabeth “Bess” Truman, the church where they were married, as well as other sites in the Truman Historic District (the Presidential Library is separate from the NHS). For our visit we only had time to visit Harry and Bess’s home if we were going to have the opportunity to explore the museum (which we very much wanted to do). We began with the exhibits and movie at the Visitor’s Center before moving on to the historic home.

TRUMAN HOME

The only way to visit the home is to take the guided tour offered by the National Park Service, so we grabbed our tickets and headed down to the house. The beautiful Victorian home was known as the “Summer White House” during Truman’s Presidency – not to be confused with the “Little Whitehouse” located in Key West. Unfortunately, other than exterior shots, the Truman home did not allow photography. I asked why and was told it was to protect the artifacts in the home from light. Since most cameras have the ability to disable flash (and since many National Historic Sites do allow photography) I find that to be a frustrating explanation, but I always abide by the rules on tour. Here’s a photograph of the outside of this beautiful home, along with the historical marker:

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Here’s another look at the exterior of the house:

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

In this shot, you’ll notice the top of a wrought iron fence in the foreground. Not a part of the original property, the fence was added by the Secret Service in 1949 to protect the home from “treasure hunters.” Souvenir hunters began to satisfy their needs by literally stealing pieces of the house. One particularly frightening incident had a startled Bess finding two women “touring” the inside of the house. So the fence was erected. Unfortunately, in addition to keeping unwelcome guests out, it also served to keep the Trumans in. Truman hated the fence, and had envisioned taking the fence down after his presidency. But they quickly realized that would never be possible. Fame would not allow for it.

The inside of the house is a bit like a time capsule. Unlike many historic homes where you step back to another century in a home that has been refurbished and done “in the style” of the original home, the Truman home is preserved exactly as it had been (complete with the Trumans’ actual possessions and furnishings), at the time when Bess Truman passed away in 1982 (10 years after Harry). This passage from the NHS website captures it perfectly: “Today, the Truman Home offers a glimpse at the personal life of the 33rd President of the United States. Beautiful in its uncluttered commonness, the Truman Home showcases the simple life the family enjoyed in Independence before and after Harry’s years as President.”

The Trumans were very frugal and there may have been financial reasons for their lifestyle and choice of Independence to retire. Until 1958, ex-presidents did not get a pension. Congress finally passed (and President Eisenhower signed) the law allowing for an annual pension of $25,000 plus office expenses of $50,000 and unlimited postage. Additionally, only after the Kennedy assassination did retired presidents get secret service protection. Until then, the police chief assigned an officer as a part-time bodyguard for the Trumans. It is said that Bess was able to push her shopping cart through the local supermarket without anyone bothering her.

One of the showpieces within the home was a piano. Unaware that the Trumans’ only child Margaret Truman Daniel was a singer and songwriter (as well as a novelist), I was charmed by stories of Margaret’s childhood in Independence including one about the train set she really wanted the Christmas she got her first piano instead.

A later tale about her career as a singer involved her father (the sitting President at the time) writing a pointed letter to a critic who had given her a less a than favorable review. The letter included (among other gems): “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!” Apparently it caused a big controversy about how a man who could not control his temper over a bad review could be trusted with the authority to use nuclear weapons. Have things really changed?

Back outside, another “time-capsule” of sorts is located on the grounds. In the garage sits Harry’s final car.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Harry only drove the 1972 Chrysler Newport for 6 months before his passing, and Bess for another ten years after that. Margaret donated the car to the National Park Service and it remains in the garage at the family home. The license plate 5745 (May 7th, 1945), the date of VE day in Europe – was to serve as a reminder to Harry of this important victory. The plate number is retired and no longer issued.

This however, was the not the same car that Harry Truman took on a long road trip after the presidency. The book “Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip” provides great insight into the years following the presidency. I wonder how their trip compared to ours?

Stay tuned as we continue our exploration of the life of the 33rd President with our visit to the Harry S. Truman Museum and Library.

****************************************************************************************
From August 12 – October 15, 2014 my husband and I traveled the northern United States in my Honda Civic. Cross Country Civic was started (and will eventually be completed) to document our cross country adventure. All comments and questions welcome.

A Presidential Detour

Before leaving New York and heading for the Canadian Falls we stopped by the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site in Buffalo.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

The site, which was declared a National Historic Site in 1966, is small, yet detailed and chronicles the Pan American Exposition, President McKinley’s assassination, and Roosevelt’s subsequent inauguration. An issues theater presents the myriad of issues facing Roosevelt as he took office. A brief tour takes you through the lower rooms of the house, including the library where he was inaugurated, and explains how Roosevelt had come to stay there after McKinley’s assassination (the house belonged to Ansley Wilcox).

The upper level of the house tells the story of Roosevelt’s presidency through a variety of exhibits, including a recreation of the White House Green Room which served as Roosevelt’s office. Here are a few shots from the tour.

Newspaper announcing a new President

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

The library where Roosevelt took the Oath of Office

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Recreation of Roosevelt’s White House office

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

In closing, as a fan of the National Parks System, Roosevelt is a favorite of mine for his role in bringing that to life. So, I’ll leave you with the conclusion of one of his quotes regarding the Grand Canyon:

Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. – Theodore Roosevelt