TOPEKA, KAN., MAY 17 -- While the rest of the nation today observed the 40th anniversary of the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, many of this city's public schools are still largely segregated by race and the Supreme Court ruling remains more vision than reality.
Brown outlawed assigning children to neighborhood schools here solely on the basis of race. But because the neighborhoods themselves were segregated -- the result of housing discrimination, economic factors and personal choice -- many of the district's schools have remained racially identifiable.
"We feel disheartened that 40 years later we're still talking about desegregation," said Linda Brown-Thompson, who was the subject of the original lawsuit. "But the struggle has to continue."
Along with her mother and two sisters, Brown-Thompson attended a ceremony this afternoon dedicating Monroe Elementary School, the all-black institution she was forced to attend, as a National Historic Site. The National Park Service plans to turn the school, closed since 1975, into a museum commemorating the history of desegregation in the United States.
But that history has been less than clear-cut here in the city where the nation's most famous school desegregation case began.
The Brown case was reopened in 1979 when the American Civil Liberties Union went back to court claiming Topeka's public schools were still segregated. For the last 15 years, the case has bounced back and forth between the federal District Court in Topeka, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.
Last June, after the Supreme Court declined to hear further arguments, the 10th Circuit in Denver upheld its earlier ruling that Topeka schools were still segregated and ordered the district court to craft a remedy.
Over the years, the school district closed and consolidated some schools, mostly in the high-minority neighborhoods around east Topeka, and redrew attendance zones in an attempt to achieve racial balance. It also authorized, but refused to pay for, voluntary transfers between schools when they would improve the racial mix of the receiving schools.
The 10th Circuit, however, ruled in 1989 that these measures had not accomplished enough.
According to the district's figures, there are 10 schools in Topeka that are "racially identifiable" because the numbers of minority students enrolled in them are at least 15 percent higher or lower than the district-wide average. Six schools are identifiable due to high minority enrollment and four due to high white enrollment.
The six minority schools are all on the east side of the city, the four white schools in newer suburbanized neighborhoods on the city's west side.
In the early 1960s, Kansas unified its school districts and locked their boundaries in place. Suburban developments sprouted up west of Topeka and upper-middle-class whites flocked there to escape urban schools and city taxes. The city could annex the developments, but the school district could not.
Meanwhile, neighborhoods in east Topeka retained their African American racial identity. According to 1990 census figures, nearly half of Topeka's 12,761 blacks live within three census tracts in east Topeka.
Blacks make up 8 percent of the city's population and 22 percent of the school district's elementary students, but they account for 43 percent of the student body in the four grade schools in those three east Topeka census tracts.
In a vote that split along racial lines, the district's Board of Education decided in March to submit a remedy that called for closing the four high-minority grade schools. In their place, the district would build two new "magnet" schools designed to attract voluntary white transfers using specialized educational themes such as environmental science and computer science.
The plan drew sharp criticism from Topeka's black community, which argued that closing only the predominantly black schools would be devastating to the black neighborhoods.
U.S. District Judge Richard Rogers agreed. He rejected both the district's plan and the plaintiffs' alternative -- which called for keeping the schools open while redrawing the attendance zones -- and sent both sides back to the negotiating table.