What Topeka, Kansas looked like in 1951
[The city is well known for the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which overturned Plessy vs. Ferguson and declared racist segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional (1954)]
Whatever else it was in 1951, Topeka was also a Jim Crow* town. It had been one as long as anyone could remember.
There were no separate waiting rooms at the train and bus stations, and Negroes did not have to ride in the back of the local buses, but in most other ways it was segregated by law and, more effectively, by custom. There were eighteen elementary schools for whites and four for blacks. There was one colored hotel, the Dunbar, and all the rest were for whites. Almost no restaurants downtown served colored customers. Before the Second World War, a number of the better beaneries* in town had a sign in the window reading: "Negroes and Mexicans served in sacks only," meaning they could take out food in bags but not eat on the premises*. One movie theater in town admitted colored people to its balcony. Another, called the Apex, was for colored only. The other five movie houses were for whites only. The swimming pool at Gage Park was off-limits to colored, except one day a year when they were allowed in for a gala picnic.
Worse yet was the employment picture. Blacks had won some jobs at the Santa Fe shops during a strike in the early Twenties, but there were few black union members in Topeka and fewer held white-collar positions of any kind. A black clerk at a retail shop or a black stenographer at an insurance company was almost unknown. Mrs. Inza Brown, who had been a legal secretary to the only black lawyer in town for thirteen years in the Twenties and Thirties, won a civil-service job at the State Department of Health, where, as she remembers, "They didn't know what to do with a black woman, so they lent me out to the city health department. In two years there, I was never offered a cup of coffee from the office coffee wagon. I had to go around the corner to get some. Topeka was one prejudiced town then, let me tell you."
Unwelcomed by most white employers, Topeka blacks retreated into their own world and tried to make do*. The principal black businesses in town were beauty and barber shops, barbecue restaurants, after-hours bars, and whorehouses. A black-owned drugstore started up and, serving black clientele only, folded after a year. Few colored retailers could command credit from the banks; few could get management experience at any white-owned store. A hundred or so professionals made a living in town—black teachers teaching black children, black preachers serving black churches, a few physicians tending the black sick. The only other work blacks had a corner on in Topeka was the most menial sort: the janitorial* jobs in the statehouse, the mop-up work at the hotels, the maids and laundresses and cooks and gardeners and chimneysweeps of the white people. A black laborer was much more likely to find an honest day's work in Detroit or Pittsburgh or back South.
Until the Second World War, black Topeka took it all quietly. Things were worse elsewhere, they said. The head of the local NAACP branch, who had been a lieutenant in the First World War and was the first Negro to work in the Topeka post office, was no firebrand*. "We've got to learn to crawl before we can walk," he was wont* to say with the solemnity of Booker Washington. The war, though, began to change things on both sides of the color line. Says Tom Lee Kiene, a native Topekan who served seventeen years on the staff of the Topeka Capital-Journal before becoming its executive editor in 1959: "Blacks who participated in civic drives selling war bonds* or raising money for the Red Cross began to come to banquets —it seemed the patriotic thing to ask them—and we whites started remarking to each other that it didn't seem to spoil our dinners."
In the black community, a few enlightened discontents* began to emerge, like Lucinda Todd, an ex-schoolteacher who had been forcibly retired by the then common rule that married women could not teach. Mrs. Todd was especially sensitive to the education her daughter, Nancy, received and was increasingly disturbed when she found that it was not as rich as that offered white youngsters. She had wanted her daughter to play the violin, for example, but there was no musical instruction at any of the black schools. Then one day she saw a notice in the newspaper about a concert by the grade-school orchestra representing all eighteen schools in town, and she exploded. "I got on the phone to the music supervisor," she remembers, "and told him there were twenty-two grade schools in town, not eighteen, and why weren't the black children offered music instruction?" She was directed to the coordinator of black schools in Topeka, who assured her that colored folks did not want music instruction and could not afford to buy the instruments. She brought her case to the Board of Education and won it. There was another time—in 1944, she places it—when Mrs. Todd bought a ticket to the Grand movie theater, the one that admitted Negroes to a section of the balcony, and when she climbed up there the two dozen or so seats reserved for colored were filled, so she took a seat right across the aisle in the white section. A policeman came and told her that she could not do that and would have to sit in the colored section or nowhere. They gave her her money back. "They did things like that all the time," Lucinda Todd recalls. Soon she became active in the NAACP, was elected secretary of the branch, and once had Walter White as an overnight guest in her residence.
Source: Simple Justice, vol. 1, by Richard Kluger, A.A. Knopf, New York 1975, pp. 471-473
* Jim Crow - was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African Americans were relegated to the status of second class citizens. Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-black racism.
* beaneries - 'Bohnenküchen", einfache Restaurants
* premises - Grundstück
* to make do - auskommen (mit dem, was man hat)
* janitorial - hausmeisterlich
* firebrand - Unruhestifter, Hitzkopf
* to be wont - gwöhnt sein
* war bonds - Kriegsanleihen
* enlightened discontents - aufgeklärte Unzufriedene
1. According to which principle did whites and blacks get along before 1954?
2. What did everyday-life of blacks look like in Topeka and the southern US statesby 1951?
3. Why do you think beauty and barber shops, barbeque restaurants, after-hours bars and whorehouses were allowed to be run by black people?
What were the most common jobs blacks filled and what did this do on their psyche?
4. What civil rights acts have improved life of blacks in the USA during the 1950s and 60s?
5. Do you think there are different living conditions for blacks and Mexicans respectively? Substantiate your view.