Pros and cons

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

One of my favorite memories as a young fifth grader at Bryan Elementary, was about the water fountains. In those days Bryan had two wings. Each wing had a water fountain in the hallway. There was also a water fountain in the cafeteria. We had a morning, noon, and afternoon recess period. After playing baseball, tag, tether ball, or any of the other numerous unsupervised recreational activities which kids played, we would all line up to go back to class. On the way the teachers would stop to let us get a drink. Since the water fountain in the cafeteria was the only iced fountain, we were always begging the teacher to let us drink there.

Sometimes we got to do that and other times not. The memory still remains of the difference.

As I write this article, it is Monday, May 17. This is the 50th anniversary of a major event in America. On this day 50 years ago, The United States Supreme Court unanimously decided a case that would come to be simply known as Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka.

The reason the water fountain of my youth reminds me so much about the Brown case is because of the iced fountain as opposed to a simple fountain. You see years later I had to teach high school students in an all-white midwest classroom about segregation and what it meant. Since I hd been raised in an all-white town and school district, this presented a challenge. That's why the fountain became so significant.

In the text I was using at the time to teach high school American History, there was this simple picture that spoke in a way no teacher ever could. It was a picture in the hallway of some public building. It could have been a court house, school, or any public place, that did not really matter. What did matter was the fountains. On the left was a beautiful, stainless steel, iced water fountain. On the right was a ridiculously small white not iced fountain. Side by side this would not have caused any undue concern if not for the signs above the fountains. Above the nice cooler on the left was a sign reading "Whites Only." Over the small tap water only fountain to the right was another sign "Colored." The power in that picture, fountains, and those signs created a climate in my classroom that hours of teaching never could. When trying to explain to kids in the '80s and '90s what segregation meant, nothing could have helped me more than that simple picture. From this picture they wanted to know more. It was easy to describe the law of the day before Brown v. Topeka which was a severe concept known as "Separate but Equal." America, I told my students, had this open wound which was the relations between the races. Almost from the beginning we had a problem with the imbalance between black and white. Slavery as an institution eventually was the leading cause of America's most violent war known as the Civil War. I went on to tell them that although the north won the war, hatred and anger over the war and the end of slavery followed us into a new period.

The United States ratified several amendments, the (13th abolished slavery in all states, the 14th gave full citizenship to blacks, the 15th listed the rights of blacks). These addressed issues such as basic citizenship, voting rights, and general legal protections. Unfortunately, over the next 80 to 90 years the courts and most of white America found ways to go around the intent of these amendments. None was more important than the Separate but Equal Doctrine.

In 1892 a young man named Homer Plessy (ironically, he was only 1/8 black and would most certainly have passed for white anywhere but in the extremely race-conscious South), was arrested for riding in the all-white car on a train in Louisiana. After four years of cases the Supreme Court handed down the Plessy v. Ferguson decision upon which race relations and the law would be based for the next 58 years. Basically the case in simple terms stated that it was all right to separate the races in areas such as schools, buses, trains, dining areas, and so on, so long as there was equal opportunity for each race to have access to the particular institution.

In principal this sounded fair to most of white America. They got to say on the one hand that blacks were free to live their lives, and on the other hand they got to keep them out of their lives on a daily basis. That's where the water fountain problem came into play. The decision on what was equal was left to the powerful and more numerous white race. Like the picture of the two water fountains, the comparative equality of separate facilities became painfully obvious.

It was no more obvious than in the schools of America. Often one would find new brick elementary buildings in a town for white students and on the other side of town a tar paper shack was relegated for the blacks. The white schools would have new text books while the black students would get the hand me downs. It did not matter on just these issues to the court.

An all-white Supreme Court found that by separating the races in such areas as schools we were violating the rights of the black students even if the schools were of equal conditions. The decision stated that by making a child go to a separate school even if it was of equal quality still made that student feel inferior and not as good as the white student. They felt that this could and often did scar that child with feelings of inferiority for life. So segregated schools all over the country were made illegal by the constitution. Here in Nevada we once had a "colored school," but it had been long gone by the time of this ruling.

While Nevada still does not have much of a problem with racial issues in our town or schools, the day is coming. To our south, schools such as Carthage have recently experienced an influx of Spanish speaking children. It is not a matter of if but when for our town. How we learn to deal with new races and how we teach our children in particular is of vital interest to our town. Like it or not, we are going to have to decide someday whether we want to be hostile and try to keep separate, or if we want to take the decent way and make sure all the fountains are ice cold!