Corydon and desegregation
Over the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
This year, 2004, and in fact this month of May ‘ ironically, Monday, May 17, the same day of the week that the decision was rendered in 1954 ‘ marked the 50th anniversary of this important ruling. I have often wondered what effect this momentous decision had on our community. How did the Corydon of 1954 react to the outlawing of segregation in this country? After all, Corydon was segregated at one time. The old Corydon Colored School, now the Leora Brown School, stands as a testament to this fact.
Apparently, May 17, 1954, passed quietly in our community, without much notice of how this decision would change the way in which African Americans would be given access to opportunities that previously had been denied them. Although the central issue of the case was education, this decision reversed the course of American history.
As a result of this decision, ‘shock waves’ were felt in many parts of the country, particularly the South. Today, it’s hard to imagine what that segregated world was like. It was a world that severely limited employment opportunities for African Americans, and required segregation in theaters, restaurants, hospitals, libraries, parks and schools. This was also the case in Corydon ‘ there was segregation in the theater, restaurants and in housing to some extent. Ironically, however, the schools in Corydon were desegregated prior to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
Corydon had a segregated education system for almost 60 years. The Corydon Colored School, built in 1891, was an elementary and a secondary school. But, in 1925, the local school district desegregated the Corydon High School due to the declining census of high-school-age African American students. Then for the same reason, a declining elementary-school-age population, the school district was forced to dismantle the Corydon Colored School in 1950. Because there were so few pupils enrolled there, the State Dept. of Education did not allow a teacher unit for the Colored School; thus, Leora Brown Farrow, a tenured teacher, was unable to continue her teaching career because she was not offered another teaching position in the school district. This turn of events forced her to finish her career as a clerk at Berlin’s Department Store on the square in Corydon.
I started first grade in 1951 at the Corydon Grade School. I never attended the Corydon Colored School although most of my sisters and brothers did. At such a young age, I cannot remember thinking anything about the fact that my brothers and sisters attended a segregated school. I only yearned to go to school with them and enjoyed learning along with them when they returned from school. Because my mother was a teacher, she created an intellectually stimulating environment within our home, so learning was already a way of life for me when I started school.
Given the fact that I was the only African American in my first grade class, and that there were only a few African American students in the entire school, unfortunately I can remember a few racial slurs during recess on the playground. Nevertheless, I adhered to my mother’s counsel to overlook those who used such language because they apparently had not been taught properly.
Generally, I found that my classmates were friendly with me, but perhaps due to my being shy, I didn’t play with them at recess. I can remember standing first in line at the steps leading into the school, waiting for the bell to ring so that I could return to the classroom. From the very start, I took my schooling very seriously and spent most of my time and energy on learning.
After a few years, my classmates came to know me and respect me; thus, I felt as though they treated me as just another fellow student. In reflecting on those days, I realize that I was one of the ‘pioneers’ in helping to integrate the schools in our community although it was pre-Brown vs. Board of Education.
And where was I during that momentous time in 1954? I was in a third grade class at Corydon Grade School, taught by Miss Margaret Evans, a tall, kind woman whom I adored. Because school for me was a quest for knowledge, I often felt closer to my teachers than my classmates. And, Miss Evans, a warm and caring instructor, was very special. She seemed to have the interest of all students at heart.
I completed my elementary/secondary grades in Corydon, not realizing fully what my life would have been like had I started school in the Corydon Colored School rather than the Corydon Grade School. Yet, had the African American school-age population not declined, I, too, would have attended that school. I know that I would have loved that school because Leora Brown was my aunt, and I’m told that she was an excellent teacher. Further, the school was a one-room school with students at varying grade levels, the kind of environment that I think might prove to be preferable over the current system.
Finally, I had the privilege of purchasing the old Corydon Colored School, spearheading its rehabilitation, renaming it for my Aunt Leora, and donating it to a not-for-profit corporation, the Leora Brown School Inc.
This lovely, simple wooden structure that had encouraged so many students deserved a dignified designation rather than a generic label. Aunt Leora deserved to have the school where she attended elementary and secondary grades and where she taught longer than any other teacher named for her. After all, she was not allowed to continue her teaching career in the local school district, but now her reputation as a respected teacher lives beyond her own life.
This month we celebrated the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in music with the Louisville Orchestra. In the fall, we will celebrate Brown vs. Board of Education with the Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court Randall Shephard. Please celebrate with us!