Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Memories of Brown v. Board of Education

BOND: Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.

BRAUN: Thank you very much. I'm delighted to be here.

BOND: It's our pleasure. I want to begin with a couple of questions about the Brown decision. I know you were just seven years old in 1954 when the Court ruled, but do you have any recollections of what it meant to you at the time or conversations about it in the family?

BRAUN: It actually made a huge difference, because it was in that year, or maybe the year after, that we moved from what was the heart of Chicago's Black Belt into then what was then a neighborhood that was on the cutting edge of integration and, as a result of Brown, I was able to go to a public school that -- starting in the third grade that had previously been all white, that had not been mixed at all, and we had some traumas as a result of it. We did the old -- this was also the time when the whole nuclear scare, as you recall, and so when the toughs would go by our school and throw rocks at the windows, we get under our desks and do "duck and cover." Do you remember that, "duck and cover"? We did "duck and cover" in the face of opposition to school desegregation in Chicago. Then, of course, later, my father, who was himself an activist, joined with Al Raby and something called the Community? I forget the name of it -- the CCC. I forget what it all stood for, but that was a group organized to protest the segregation of Chicago schools. They were using --

BOND: And which later brought Dr. King to Chicago.

BRAUN: Which later brought Dr. King to Chicago, exactly. Well, he did for schools and housing because I actually marched with him on the housing march, yes, but they were using something called "Willis wagons." The superintendent of schools was Ben Willis and in order to keep the overcrowding in the black schools from putting pressure for integration on the formerly all-white schools, he used these trailers, and so you had in the black neighborhoods trailers to augment the population of -- for the population of black students and often undercrowding in the white schools, and so the CCC started to protest that and to say you know, Brown v. Board of Education requires that these schools be integrated to the extent possible, and we just have to get it going on, get it fixed here in Chicago.

BOND: Do you remember, at the time at this young age in '54 and even in '55, when you go to this new school, having any larger thoughts about what this meant to the larger world, the larger United States, what Brown might mean nationwide?

BRAUN: Well, no, to be honest. At that point I didn't. I did later. We had kind of an unusual household because my parents considered themselves -- at least, my father -- well, both of my parents. They were not -- Bohemians is the wrong word, but we were surrounded by artists and musicians and so people from a lot of different walks of life, so we always had an integrated household, but there was always discussion of race relations and the kinds of developments in the larger community and so even as a small child, I was really acutely aware of the efforts of people to build an integrated society.

BOND: And probably I'm guessing, hopeful about it, that this would be a good thing and it will happen and things will be better?

BRAUN: Well, I just assumed, you see, I mean, for me, again, because as a child, there were black people and there were white people in my family, in what I considered to be family. There were Asians in my family, and so I kind of grew up in this multicultural milieu and didn't really see firsthand the problems. The earliest recollection is actually a hilarious story. The earliest recollection I have -- my great-grandfather had the farm, bought a farm in Alabama that's still in the family and we would go there in the summer times and I couldn't have been more than 8, maybe 10, 9 or 10 years old, and we would take the train down and we got off in Montgomery. I think it was Montgomery. Yes, it was Montgomery, and got off the train with my mother, myself, my mother, my little brother.

We were thirsty, but the water fountains were segregated, you know, there were water fountains for white and water fountains for colored and my mother wouldn't let us drink out of the colored water fountain and so my little brother laid in the middle of the floor screaming and had a temper tantrum. "I want some colored water, I want some colored water."

He thought it was going to come out green and blue and purple and yellow and red and so he wanted -- he was determined to have some colored water. He didn't understand obviously the implications of what all that was about.