By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer
Professor Sarah Heath pointed to an old photo showing more than 50 black children crowded inside a small classroom with only a few textbooks to share among them.
That’s what black schools in the deep south looked like before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended segregation in schools, the Indiana University Kokomo professor said during a Black History Month lecture Tuesday.
Kids would accidentally drop pencils and watch as they fell through large cracks to the floor below.
Those schools were supposed to be “separate but equal” to the white schools. The whole idea of separating schools by race seemed preposterous to Heath anyway.
“That seems strange to me that you’re so much better that you push everyone else to one area,” she said.
And it wasn’t just black children who suffered because of it. It was Hispanic people, too.
In Texas, Hispanic children attended their own schools and were beaten if they tried to speak Spanish during the school day. They often weren’t allowed to use the bathroom during lunch, Heath said.
Counselors would steer those students away from college. They’d tell the kids to become mechanics or housekeepers.
“They would say things like, ‘Don’t get your hopes up.” And: ‘Don’t try too hard to get in to college,’” Heath said.
Then one Kansas girl ended it all.
Heath said she had the opportunity to speak to Linda Brown, whose family challenged their local school district. The black girl wanted to attend the white school that was closer to her house.
Heath said Brown had to walk down dirt paths between moving trains to get to her bus stop. Then when she boarded a bus, she listened to a driver berate her.
“She dreaded the idea of going to school every day,” Heath said.
When school officials told Brown she couldn’t attend the white school, her family fought back. They took the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
The court heard testimony from psychologists who said that schools could never really be “separate but equal” because of the psychological damage the separation causes.
They cited the Clark Doll Study. Psychologists showed children a white doll and black doll and told them, “Give me the doll that looks bad.”
The overwhelming majority of children chose the black doll, Heath said.
Even black children chose that doll because they had been treated like second-class citizens their whole lives, the professor said.
“Those children were crying when they picked the doll,” she said. “It was powerful testimony.”
Problems remained even after schools became integrated. It was a tough process, the professor said.
In Arkansas, the National Guard was called to escort black students to their classes because the threat of violence was so high.
The National Guard members would not follow students into bathrooms or locker rooms, Heath said. One woman ended up with scars on her knees. Some white students broke a bottle on the floor and pushed her into it.
The world faces similar inclusion battles today, Heath said.
The military is trying to figure out what to do with gay service members after it abolished “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.”
Heath posed a question. Will the government extend medical benefits and housing benefits to a service member’s partner?
“People still have to worry about these issues of inclusion,” Heath said. “It’s not easy.”
Those groups are using the same arguments that were used in Brown v. Board of Education — that all people are supposed to be afforded equal protection under the law.
Thirty-one-year-old Andre Gillard listened to Heath’s lecture Tuesday, but he wasn’t really interested in seeing more images of black people suffering.
His mom grew up picking cotton in Mississippi. She told him stories about how she was treated.
He’s seen discrimination firsthand. Cops once pulled him over in Mississippi because his white girlfriend was riding with him.
They said they were looking for a woman who had gone missing in the area. They stopped him even though his car had Indiana plates, he said.
“I’d rather forget that stuff and move on,” he said. “I talked to my mom about it. I asked her, ‘Aren’t you tired of seeing how you were treated?’”
He said constantly making comments about skin color brainwashes people into categorizing themselves.
Gillard said he doesn’t see color. He went to school with kids from all races and has friends of all races.
Heath smiled and told him he made a good point.
“It would be nice if the whole world was like that,” she said.
But she’s been threatened by Neo-Nazis for talking about racial inclusion. She watched people in Idaho chase a black family out of town with bats.
This conversation needs to happen, Heath said.
“Not talking about it makes them win,” she said.
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