Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Reflections on Brown

BOND: Eleanor Holmes Norton, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership. Let me start with some questions about Brown v. Board. When you heard about the decision, what did it mean to you?

NORTON: Well, as it turns out, it had great meaning to me. I was sitting in Dunbar High School here in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 1954, and the District of Columbia was one of the Brown cases. Dunbar High School is a storied high school where many African Americans of note attended over the decades. It was the first public high school for African Americans in the United States, so that the race consciousness in this school, which was for many years the only college preparatory high school for black children in the city -- that race consciousness, that civic consciousness, was fairly high.

It was certainly high enough so that the principal, who is still living today, Mr. Charles Lofton, sounded the buzzer that tells you that the principal is about to make an announcement. Brown was one of the most memorable days in my life because I recall his being very clear that he had an important announcement to be made. I don't remember the exact words, but I remember that they were words to the effect that the Supreme Court of the United States had just declared schools like this school to be in violation of the Constitution of the United States because this school is a segregated school, segregated by law. The Dunbar High School had many teachers with Ph.D.s or other advanced degrees. It was an occasion when teachers broke down --

BOND: Yes, I noticed you wrote about teachers crying.

NORTON: Yes. The historic significance to Dunbar was very great where this school had stood for excellence -- indeed, for public education itself, for African Americans as the first high school for African Americans set up right after the turn of the century, of the nineteenth century, that is. So it was a moment of not cheering, the kind of cheering you see today, but of awe and of reverence for the teachers who seemed to believe that they had an obligation to, at the same time, convey to us the historical importance of the moment.

BOND: Can you remember what you thought then that importance would be -- what it would mean to you then, as opposed to how it's turned out?

NORTON: The District of Columbia was a city where people had been striving for decades to integrate, as it were, fairly basic institutions. It was a city which had been majority -- was still a majority white city when I grew up and when Dunbar -- when this decision was announced. It was a city where everything was segregated. The public accommodations, the schools. It was a Southern town for all intents and purpose, so that throughout my entire life in school and at home, discussion of bigotry and racial segregation had been constant, so that I immediately believed -- and as it turns out in the District of Columbia, believed correctly -- that the schools in the District of Columbia would become integrated immediately. And they did.

I was in the eleventh grade. My sister Portia was in the tenth grade. We remained at Dunbar but my third sister went to the nearest high school to our home, Roosevelt High School. Portia and I had to get a bus and then to get a streetcar to Dunbar to a neighborhood that was even then a dangerous neighborhood, but it was where Dunbar had been located. And now people could go to high schools nearest them, although many jurisdictions did not feel the impact of Brown immediately. The District of Columbia was ready for it and I believed that this school would be no longer segregated, and my goodness, it was no longer segregated.

BOND: Now, looking back at it from the perspective of more than fifty years -- looking back, what do you think it has turned out to mean? After this initial success in Washington, D.C., what has it turned out to mean?

NORTON: Well, if by that you mean in terms of the integration of the schools, Dunbar was not integrated even then because there were no white people around school. There were schools that were integrated because there were many white people still living in the District of Columbia and the fact that the schools are largely black today has nothing to do with Brown v. Board of Education -- has to do with white flight, which occurred for a number of reasons. Yes, school integration was one of them, but it also occurred because of the expansion of the population and people as they got better off, tended to move out of the city. And when you move out of the city you look for places where the schools are good and, by the way, the black middle class also moved in large numbers out of the schools, so it left a city which had been a city of very considerably middle class, black and white, still in many ways a middle class city, but with a greater proportion of poor people than would have been the case in 1954.

So, yes, the schools do not look like they did right after Brown v. Board of Education, but I think it is a big mistake to somehow draw a straight line from Brown to the state of the schools today since Brown promised no more than to lift the veil of official imprimatur from segregation. It didn't promise much more than that. We didn't want the integration of schools to take place because we thought that there must be schools where you could get a better education than at Dunbar, but we did think that there were schools where there were better facilities, and we did believe that the education of children would be enhanced if they could be educated together rather than separated off into racial groupings.