The Supreme Court of Iowa issued that court order when it made its historic ruling in a school desegregation case brought by Susan’s father, Alexander Clark. This was 86 years before the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ordered the desegregation of the nation’s public schools.
In the Iowa case, a judge named Chester Cole ruled that the Muscatine School Board’s racial segregation policy was illegal. The Iowa Supreme Court was the first court in the nation to say that segregation was unlawful.
Up from slavery
Susan Clark’s parents were Alexander Clark and Catherine Griffin Clark. Alexander’s father, John – this would be Susan’s grandfather – was born to a slave owner and an enslaved woman. Both John and his mother were freed after John’s birth. Alexander’s mother, Rebecca Darnes, was the daughter of emancipated slaves, George and Leticie Darnes. Alexander was born free in Pennsylvania in 1826. Catherine Griffin was born a slave in Virginia in 1829, and was freed at the age of three and taken to Ohio.
Alexander and Catherine married in 1848, and set up their home in Muscatine, a small, prosperous town on the Mississippi River. Alexander was a barber and a successful businessman. He was an outstanding speaker and was so active in the Underground Railroad – a secret network that helped slaves escape to freedom – and other civil rights causes that he has been recognized as “one of the greatest civil rights leaders of the 19th century.”
School board wanted segregation
The Muscatine School Board didn’t try to hide the reason it rejected Susan’s application to attend Grammar School No. 2, which was the school closest to where she lived. The school said its decision to keep black and white students segregated was in line with “public sentiment that is opposed to the intermingling of white and colored children in the same schools.” The school board argued that its schools were “separate but equal.” This argument worked in a lot of other courts at the time, including the highest courts in Massachusetts, New York and California. But the argument didn’t work in the Supreme Court of Iowa.
Justice Cole pointed out that the very first words in the Iowa Constitution say “equal rights to all.”
First black graduate
Susan Clark didn’t experience threats and taunts like black children did when they integrated schools in the 1960s. There were only 35 black children in Muscatine at the time.
Susan Clark went on to become the first black graduate of a public school in Iowa – Muscatine High School – in 1871 and served as commencement speaker.
The Muscatine Journal praised Susan’s commencement address, “Nothing But Leaves,” for its “originality,” observing it was “unpretending in style” and had “many excellent thoughts.”
Susan married the Rev. Richard Holley, an African Methodist Episcopalian minister, and their ministry took them to Cedar Rapids and Davenport, Iowa, and Champaign, Illinois. Susan lived a long life, passing in 1925 at age 70, and was buried in Muscatine’s Greenwood Cemetery.
Iowa led the nation
You might wonder why and how the Iowa Supreme Court ruled against segregation at a time when other courts were not doing so.
Each of the four justices on the Iowa Supreme Court was a Republican – the party of Abraham Lincoln – and each had been a strong supporter of the Union cause. Chester Cole was an early advocate for giving black men the right to vote because of their service in the Union Army during the Civil War.
It is important to note that the Iowa Supreme Court never overturned the Clark v. Board of School Directors decision, even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1896 that segregation was legal under the U.S. Constitution.
Fifty-eight years after ruling that segregation was legal, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the 1954 Brown v. Board decision that desegregated the nation’s public schools. The Brown decision showed how far ahead the Iowa Supreme Court was when it said segregation was illegal nearly a century earlier.
But the story behind the historic Supreme Court case, as I plan to show in my forthcoming book, “Blacks Against Brown: The Black Anti-Integration Movement in Topeka, Kansas, 1941-1954,” is much more complex than the highly inaccurate but often-repeated tale about how the lawsuit began. The story that often gets told is that – as recounted in this news story – the case began with Oliver Brown, who tried to enroll his daughter, Linda, at the Sumner School, an all-white elementary school in Topeka near the Browns’ home. Or that Oliver Brown was a “determined father who took Linda Brown by the hand and made history.”
As my research shows, that tale is at odds with two great historical ironies of Brown v. Board. The first irony is that Oliver Brown was actually a reluctant participant in the Supreme Court case that would come to be named after him. In fact, Oliver Brown, a reserved man, had to be convinced to sign on to the lawsuit because he was a new pastor at church that did not want to get involved in Topeka NAACP’s desegregation lawsuit, according to various Topekans whose recollections are recorded in the Brown Oral History Collection at the Kansas State Historical Society.
The second irony is that, of the five local desegregation cases brought before the Supreme Court by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1953, Brown’s case – formally known as Oliver Brown et al., v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al. – ended up bringing widespread attention to a city where many blacks actually resisted school integration. That not-so-small detail has been overshadowed by the way the case is presented in history.
Black resistance to integration
While school desegregation may have symbolized racial progress for many blacks throughout the country, that simply was not the case in Topeka. In fact, most of the resistance to the NAACP’s school desegregation efforts in Topeka came from Topeka’s black citizens, not whites.
“I didn’t get anything from white folks,” Leola Brown Montgomery, wife of Oliver and mother of Linda, recalled. “I tell you here in Topeka, unlike the other places where they brought these cases we didn’t have any threats” from whites.
Prior to the Brown case, black Topekans had been embroiled in a decade-long conflict over segregated schools that began with a lawsuit involving Topeka’s junior high schools. When the Topeka School Board commissioned a poll to determine black support for integrated junior high schools in 1941, 65 percent of black parents with junior high school students indicated that they preferred all-black schools, according to school board minutes.
Separate but equal
Another wrinkle to the story is that the city’s four all-black elementary schools – Buchanan, McKinley, Monroe and Washington – had resources, facilities and curricula that were comparable to that of Topeka’s white schools. The Topeka school board actually adhered to the “separate-but-equal” standard established by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case.
“I remember the materials that we used being of good quality,” Linda Brown stated in a 1985 interview.
That made the Topeka lawsuit unique among the cases the NAACP Legal Defense Fund combined and argued before the Supreme Court in 1953. Black schoolchildren in Topeka did not experience overcrowded classrooms like those in Washington, D.C., nor were they subjected to dilapidated school buildings like those in Delaware or Virginia.
While black parents in Delaware and South Carolina petitioned their local school boards for bus service, the Topeka School Board voluntarily provided buses for black children. Topeka’s school buses became central to the local NAACP’s equal access complaint due to weather and travel conditions.
Quality education was “not the issue at that time,” Linda Brown recalled, “but it was the distance that I had to go to acquire that education.”
Another unique characteristic of Topeka public schools was that black students went to both all-black elementary and predominantly white junior high and high schools. This fact presented another challenge for the Topeka NAACP’s desegregation crusade. The transition from segregated elementary schools to integrated junior and senior high schools was a harsh and alienating one. Many black Topekans recalled the overt and covert racism of white teachers and administrators. “It wasn’t the grade schools that sunk me,” Richard Ridley, a black resident and Topeka High School alumnus who graduated in 1947, told interviewers for the Brown Oral History Collection at the Kansas State Historical Society. “It was the high school.”
Black teachers cherished
A primary reason that black Topekans fought the local NAACP’s desegregation efforts is because they appreciated black educators’ dedication to their students. Black residents who opposed school integration often spoke of the familial environment in all-black schools.
Black teachers proved to be a formidable force against the local NAACP. “We have a situation here in Topeka in which the Negro Teachers are violently opposed to our efforts to integrate the public schools,” NAACP branch Secretary Lucinda Todd wrote in a letter to the national NAACP in 1953.
Black supporters of all-black schools used a number of overt and covert tactics to undermine NAACP members’ efforts. Those tactics included lobbying, networking, social ostracism, verbal threats, vandalism, sending harassing mail, making intimidating phone calls, the Brown Oral History Collection reveals.
But the national office of the NAACP never appreciated the unique challenges that its local chapter faced. The Topeka NAACP struggled to recruit plaintiffs, despite their door-to-door canvassing.
Fundraising was also a major problem. The group could not afford the legal services of their attorneys and raised only $100 of the $5,000 needed to bring the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
History ultimately would not be on the side of the majority of Topeka’s black community. A small cohort of local NAACP members kept pushing for desegregation, even as they stood at odds with most black Topekans.
Linda Brown and her father may be remembered as the faces of Brown v. Board of Education. But without the resilience and resourcefulness of three local NAACP members – namely, Daniel Sawyer, McKinley Burnett and Lucinda Todd – there would have been no Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
The real story of Brown v. Board may not capture the public imagination like that of a 9-year-old girl who “brought a case that ended segregation in public schools in America.” Nevertheless, it is the truth behind the myth. And it deserves to be told.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story appeared in The Conversation on March 30, 2018.
“Integration” and “diversity” do not express God’s purpose for reconciliation deeply enough. What we need is a fresh paradigm that declares our new culture in Christ.
A workshop last month in Cincinnati at the Christian Community Development Association conference (CCDA) confirmed my conviction that Christians need fresh language regarding our mission and identity in a divided world.
During my workshop, I remarked that as “reconciliation” becomes both increasingly popular and contested, and as such potentially unhelpful, the critical question is “reconciliation toward what?” I mentioned two dominant paradigms.
• Integration is the first paradigm — overcoming oppression through social equality and access to mainstream benefits. There has been deep progress in this area, at the same time the fierce historical opposition to racial and economic integration in American life is a sign of a captivity which is yet to be overcome. Yet as early as the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott Martin Luther King Jr. argued that integration would not go far enough to heal America: “The end,” preached King, “is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”
Notions of integration easily lead to “equal and separate” and avoid even more difficult and holy work. As Charles Marsh has argued in The Beloved Community, “[W]hile the civil rights movement defeated segregation and forever changed American society, the nation has experienced precious little repentance, reconciliation, and costly discipleship.”
• Diversity has been the other dominant response to “reconciliation toward what?” Over the last ten years there has been an explosion of initiatives and literature around “inclusiveness” and “diversity.” Some Christian denominations and institutions are diversifying their leadership and constituencies in ways which are transformative and to be celebrated. Pastor Mark DeMaz pointed out to me recently the traction that “multi” has gotten in the evangelical world: “multi-ethnic” (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship), “multi-cultural” (David Anderson of Bridgeway Community Church), “multi-racial” (sociologist and author George Yancey). This is long overdue, and Soong Chan Rah’s much-discussed book The Next Evangelicalism shows how far there is to go.
Yet at CCDA I said that “multi” does not capture the work of the Holy Spirit within history powerfully enough. The story of creation and humanity as diverse and good must be completed by the story of God’s redemption of the ways the fall deformed the gift of difference through the trauma of sin. The trajectory of the Christian story is an interruption and transformation of historical identities and fixed groups (Jew, Greek, male, female, slave, free) toward a fluidity of identity and culture: when the Antioch church becomes a new people across these lines, a community and politics (where Jesus is Lord, not Caesar) comes into existence that is so strange, it requires a new language. It is at Antioch that the disciples are first called “Christians.”
If Integration and Diversity are insufficient paradigms for “reconciliation toward what” in an increasingly multicultural America and world wracked by intensifying polarizations, what’s the alternative?
“Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer. So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation…” 2 Cor. 5:15-18
What’s the alternative? I believe we find it in the above passage.
At the CCDA, I suggested that we consider the implications of “New Creation.” New Creation breaks beyond tribal self-sufficiency to a “toward what” grounded in the story and power of God’s gift in Jesus Christ which interrupts the ground of injustice and divides with conversion toward a new community, new desires, and a new Lord.
New Creation is a call to being changed (metanoia) in a visible new way of life and sharing together (koinonia, including a new economic life between rich and poor, see Acts 2 and Acts 4, and including life with strangers who become companions). This is why, for example, I prefer to speak of “interracial” churches. In saying “interracial” (e.g. interracial churches or interracial marriage) instead of “biracial” we point to a cultural intimacy, interdependence, and mutual transformation which is a sign of a “new humanity.” There is a rich literature around “transcultural” or “third culture kids” who make up a kind of “new people” who don’t fit into the homeland their parents left nor the culture they are living in. As a missionary kid who grew up in Korea, I identify profoundly with this.
Yet the English language may itself be so ridden with dichotomies that it cannot capture how New Creation interrupts us in the “sluggish in between” of human life between Jesus’ resurrection and return. But another language does.
Here is how Duke Divinity School scholar Edgardo Colon-Emeric expresses it:
According to the seer of Patmos [John’s vision in Revelation 7:9-17 of a multitude from every nation, tongue, language, worshipping the Lamb], the Church is a mestizo assembly gathered from every nation in praise of the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Reflecting on this Spanish word mestizo, Edgardo, who is also the director of Duke’s Hispanic House of Studies, adds:
Mestizo … refers literally to a mixture. The term was first used to describe the children of the violent encounter between European fathers and Amerindian mothers. Neither European nor Indian, these children belonged to a new people, a people of mixed heritage. But this mixed heritage is not simply a historical or ethnic marker; it is also the goal of Christian existence. In the words of Mexican-American theologian Virgil Elizondo ‘the future is mestizo,’ not because of ethnic mixing, but because the new humanity in Christ is a mestizo humanity of Jews and Gentiles.”
My friend Edgardo goes on to say, “The church needs leaders who have eyes to see that all ethnic ministries are provisional because the future is mestizo.” To repeat the key claim, “this mixed heritage is not simply a historical or ethnic marker; it is also the goal of Christian existence.”
As I told those who attended my CCDA workshop, I am not advocating being blind to or forgetful of the history of oppression and how this trajectory deforms community, institutional, and church life. A notion of cheap “reconciliation without memory” leads to assimilation into the dominant culture and its values. This is exactly why New Creation matters: We are freed from captivity through shared journeys and communities of conversion which make difference meaningful in an exchange of gifts and a vision of mutuality which is both truthful about the grip of sin and reaches toward a new place of life together.
Through the ministry of Maggy Barankitse in the east African country of Burundi, orphans of violence between rival Tutsi and Hutu groups have lived for years together at Maison Shalom (“House of Peace”). On top of former tribal killing fields, they share intimate daily life with the multiplicity of people who come there including from the “Twa” minority, nearby Congo, and “Muzungus” (outsiders) from Europe and the U.S. Over time, their identities become reshaped and quite confused in this new community. When questioned about her ethnic identity, one orphan speaks of herself as being a “Hutsi-Twa-Congo-Zungu” — pulling all these peoples into a kind of one new humanity.
Integration and Diversity do not state the power of the Holy Spirit’s interruption of history deeply enough. To emphasize Edgardo’s point, “all ethnic ministries are provisional because the future is mestizo.” Diversity and integration lack a telos, a goal, a “for what purpose?” New Creation and a mestizo vision properly understood within God’s work of “reconciling all things in Christ” (Col. 1:15-23) offer a fresh paradigm of “toward what” that is not only deeply transformative but beautiful, a bit scary, and subversive to the way things are. Not to mention a deeper way to holiness and vision which requires God.
Teen life is an inherently tumultuous time. Bodies change and hormones start raging, even as teens begin to confront life's big questions -- the very same questions many adults have yet to figure out, like: "Who am I?" "Why am I here?" "Where do I belong?"
Greetings from Brooklyn, the most populous borough in New York City. Birthplace of Jay-Z. Home of the integration of Major League Baseball. And site of the largest battle of the Revolutionary War. If Brooklyn were its own city, it would be the fourth largest in America.
My name is Jeremy Del Rio, and I’m an addict — if you can call ministry to young people an addiction. Or if you can call city life addicting. Either way, I’m hooked.
I’ve lived more of my life in Brooklyn than anywhere else, with pit stops in Manhattan (the glitzy borough), Staten Island (the forgotten borough), and the greatest of NYC suburbs, New Jersey (sometimes called the Sixth Borough). My wife has lived nowhere else. Nor have our sons, both of whom were born here.
Our boys will soon discover the ABC’s of City Living. Multifaceted and textured, Brooklyn is:
• Altruistic, artistic, and adventurous.
• Boisterous and beautiful.
• Cosmopolitan, creative, curious, conflicted, communal, and even cliquish.
• Diverse and occasionally dangerous.
• Inspired and invigorating.
• Jubilant and joyful.
• Maturing and sometimes mean.
• Neighborly or nasty.
• “Over it.”
• Quite charming.
• Restless, rowdy, and relevant.
• Smart, sophisticated, and sometimes sullen.
• Wide-eyed and occasionally wild.
• Xenos friendly but sometimes xenophobic.
• Yours to love (or not).
So, too, are young people.
You may quibble with my list, and its applicability to youth ministry, but that’s part of the allure of cities. It’s OK if you disagree. We can still get along. We can still build community despite our differences.
Like many urban neighborhoods, mine is in perpetual flux, transformed for generations by successive waves of immigrants. For the last decade or so, Bay Ridge has evolved into one of the largest Arab communities in New York, with Halal meat markets and Hookah shops now lining the streets. Sometimes the newer arrivals make the long-timers uncomfortable. And vice versa.
So, too, our youth ministries.
Youth ministry is an inherently transitory time. No matter how we define the youth in our ministries, they are bound by age, grade, or some other time constraint that ensures that they will move on, leaving empty spaces or replenished pews. How we build community with them while we can determines, in part, whether they leave behind a vacuum or a legacy.
Do we attempt to conform them to our standards of decorum and decency, or do we empower them to flourish in the uniqueness endowed to them by their Creator? Does our community celebrate their differences by loving them sincerely, without an agenda?
Teen life is an inherently tumultuous time. Bodies change and hormones start raging, even as teens begin to confront life’s big questions — the very same questions many adults have yet to figure out, like: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Where do I belong?” But the uncertainty, curiosity, and ambiguity bring with them opportunity for exploration, adventure, and discovery. Do we embrace the unknowns that faith requires, or chase after the safety of what’s familiar?
When the transience and change feel overwhelming, I take comfort that Jesus gives youth workers an extra year with high school students than he had with his disciples. Even more comforting: his prize student, Peter, still needed anger management after three years by his side. Jesus’ ragtag collection of unlikely followers included a political terrorist (the Zealot), a crooked bureaucrat (the tax collector), and a prostitute — among other “ignorant and unlearned” devotees notable only for their least likely to succeed credentials. Each of these people had to be at least as conflicted and petty as the teens in my youth group.
They were certainly (almost) as diverse as my neighborhood.