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Michelle Obama and the Flip Side of Brown v. Board

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MICHELLE OBAMA TOPEKA
ASSOCIATED PRESS

When Michelle Obama came to Topeka last month to speak on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision, she gave the graduating seniors, their families and the hundreds of other audience members a great gift.

The First Lady told the students that their community was special. Despite the national stereotype of bland, white-bread Kansas, she pointed out the incredible diversity of Topeka urban schools.

"You all take the diversity you're surrounded by for granted -- you probably don't even notice it," she said.

Then she added: "But remember, not everyone has grown up in a place like Topeka. You see, many districts in this country have actually pulled back on efforts to integrate their schools ... So today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech."

Not only was her speech powerful and empowering, it was vastly appreciated: she received five standing ovations.

The Topeka public school district can indeed be proud of the diversity of its student body, comprised of over 58 percent students of color. All the speakers that evening referenced the proud legacy of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that ended public school segregation, Brown v. Board of Education. Dr. Beryl New, the African American principal who gave the closing address that evening, is a product of Topeka public schools herself. She pronounced herself "Topeka proud."

But what the First Lady did not mention was this: Although the landmark decision achieved integrated student bodies in some schools, like Topeka's, it resulted in a huge loss -- the alarming forced displacement of black teachers. The consequences of that loss have lasted, and the current national picture is bleak. According to an Associated Press article published last month, about half of students who attend public schools nationwide are minorities, but 4 out of 5 teachers are white. The same article broke down that ratio. It cited a study by the National Center for Education Statistics that said of the 3.3 million teachers in American public schools in 2012, 82 percent were white, 8 percent Hispanic, 7 percent black, and 2 percent Asian.

These statistics also reflect the teaching staff in the very diverse Topeka public school district. A recent article in the Topeka daily paper quoted Tammy Austin, assistant superintendent, as saying that the teaching staff is largely made up of white women. Her words took me back to 2006 when the Topeka public school district was actively recruiting teachers from the Philippines. Why wasn't the district actively recruiting black educators, or Hispanic teachers, to reflect its student population? I wondered.

I dug a little and made some phone calls and was referred to an academic article by Linda C. Tillman of Wayne State University: "(Un)Intended Consequences? The Impact of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision on the Employment Status of Black Educators." Tillman's article was published 10 years ago, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board. She cites several jarring statistics. In 1954, the year the Supreme Court decided Brown, about 82,000 black teachers taught 2 million African American public school students. In the ensuing decade, at least 38,000 black teachers and administrators lost their jobs.

One of those teachers was Miss Darla Buchanan of Topeka. Tillman opens her article with a letter sent by the then-superintendent of Topeka schools, Wendell Godwin, to Miss Buchanan in the spring of 1953.

He writes: "If the Supreme Court should rule that segregation in the elementary grades is unconstitutional our Board will proceed on the assumption that the majority of people in Topeka will not want to employ negro teachers next year for White children. It is necessary for me to notify you now that your services will not be needed for next year."

This traumatic displacement of black educators after Brown must be lodged somewhere in the collective unconscious of young black students considering careers in public education. Indeed, Tillman cites another jarring statistic: between 1975 and 1985, the number of black students majoring in education dropped by 66 percent, a huge falloff, even factoring in the greater professional opportunities open to black college students during that time.

My daughter attended public school in Topeka for 13 years without ever having a black teacher. She attended schools served by black administrators, but she never had an African American teacher. My son, 14 and a half years younger, had several teachers of color, but only one African American classroom teacher. This is not good enough, especially in Topeka, where what we call "minorities" make up the majority of students.

It harms all students to be taught by an overwhelmingly white teaching staff. If you are a minority student, taught largely by white women, you will lack shared cultural heritage, you will lack adult connections to your community in the classroom, you will lack a ready role model who mirrors you in the classroom.

When Michelle Obama, as our first black First Lady, brought to Topeka her message of empowerment through diversity, she reinforced the positives of Brown v. Board. Her message should also hold us to a standard. Not just for diversity in student bodies, but for diversity in the teaching staff that each day has the opportunity to educate, motivate and inspire those students. This continues to be our post-Brown challenge.