Brown vs. Board of Education & its Latino connections

On this date in history 62 years ago today, the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS made school segregation unconstitutional.  This case transformed the lives not only of African-Americans, but was preceded and followed by justice for Black and Brown U.S. citizens around the world.  

Highlighting these connections takes nothing away from Black struggles for Civil Rights in the United States. On the contrary, the intent is to demonstrate that past, present, and future struggles for Civil Rights have never been for or by one group alone.

 

Mexican Segregation: Méndez et al vs. Westminster School District of Orange County California (1947)


Discrimination and segregation in the United States have never been strictly Black-White experiences. The discrimination against Mexican-Americans, especially on the west coast of the U.S. was rampant.

Image from WikiMedia Commons. Credit on website: National Civil Rights Museum Downtown Memphis, TN

Image from WikiMedia Commons. Credit on website: National Civil Rights Museum Downtown Memphis, TN

A case in California eight years before Brown set a necessary precedent for Brown vs the Board of Education: Méndez vs. Westminster .

In short, although no law legally segregated Mexican and Mexican American children (de jure), they were in fact segregated (de facto). In 1944, The Orange County school district told Gonzalo Méndez that his three children had to attend the “Mexican” school despite the fact that their lighter skinned cousins attended the white school.  Mendez and four other Mexican families took four Los Angeles-area school districts to court and won a class action lawsuit at the trial and appellate levels of the federal court system. (Click HERE to listen to Sylvia Méndez recall her experience as a child attending a Mexican School)

Understanding that legal decisions and civil rights transcend state, racial, and ethnic lines, Mendez’s counsel and support included: League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), American Jewish Congress, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Japanese American Citizens League.

When Thurgood Marshall represented Linda Brown in Brown vs. the Board of Education, he used  arguments from the Méndez case. The relevance — segregation based on color and origin — was clear.

That we are all individuals; that we are all human beings; that we are all connected together; and that we all have the same rights, the same freedom.” – Sylvia Mendez, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011

On September 14, 2007, in Santa Ana, California, issued 41-cent Mendez v. West­minster commemorative stamp designed by Ethel Kessler of Bethesda, Maryland

On September 14, 2007, in Santa Ana, California, issued 41-cent Mendez v. West­minster commemorative stamp designed by Ethel Kessler of Bethesda, Maryland

 

Brown vs the Board of Education reaches the Panama Canal Zone


We often think of U.S. law within the physical confines of the United States. But what about U.S. territories? Such was the case of the Panama Canal Zone.

The Panama Canal Zone was a U.S. territory from its creation in 1903 until the Panama Canal Treaties of 1977 mandated the Zone’s dissolution in 1979.  The United States was a racially segregated society. U.S. society at the time included the U.S. Panama Canal Zone, as the Zone was governed completely by U.S. laws. Segregation existed in the U.S. Panama Canal Zone.

Manuel Sandoval, DC resident, recalled the separated spaces existed along both race (“Black” and “white”) as well as citizenship (“Panamanian” and “American”) in Panama during his interview.

I never experienced discrimination; however, in the Canal Zone there was clear discrimination — Panamanian Blacks went to one place, Black Americans went to another, and White Americans had their own thing. – Manuel Sandoval

Black Mosaic Exhibition Records, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution

After the landmark decision of Brown vs. the Board of education, citizenship, not race, became the primary source of inequity in the U.S. Panama Canal Zone. Black and white U.S. citizens integrated. This law only applied to U.S. citizens.  Zonians (the term for people living in the Canal Zone) of Panamanian or West Indian citizenship remained segregated from U.S. citizens in school and housing, with some exceptions, such as the Canal Zone College. Latin American schools and thus Spanish language instruction replaced U.S. based school with English language instruction for non-U.S. citizens. This language change was especially problematic for West Indian children from English speaking islands, as many did not speak Spanish at home.  Between 1960 and 1970, Panama had the largest number and percentage of Central American immigrants to the U.S.   The change in language of educational instruction in Canal Zone schools was certainly a factor.

 

Brown vs. Board of Education, Panama, and the Doll Tests


Although raised in New York, Dr. Kenneth Bancroft Clark was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Dr. Clark was the first Black Ph.D. recipient from Columbia University, the first Black president of the American Psychological Association and the first tenured Black professor at the City University of New York.

Kenneth Bancroft Clark by Burton Phillip Silverman. Charcoal on paper (1982) Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Burton Silverman

Kenneth Bancroft Clark by Burton Phillip Silverman. Charcoal on paper (1982)
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Burton Silverman

Dr. Clark is best known for his psychology experiments colloquially known as “doll tests.” He and his wife, Dr. Mamie Clark used four dolls, identical except for their color, to test kids’ racial perceptions. Children ages 3-7 were asked to identify the dolls and express preference. The majority of the children preferred the white doll, assigning positive characteristics to it and negative characteristics to the darker doll, deemed undesirable.

These tests were prominently cited in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas as evidence of the psychological effects of racial segregation on Black children’s self-esteem. It was one of the first times social science research was used in legal proceedings (Méndez vs. Westminster also drew on social science research). Less cited conclusions from the Drs. Clark’s “doll tests” included that racism is an inherently American institution and that school segregation also hindered the development of white children. Given the news that U.S. schools are re-segregating, these lessons are more important than ever.

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More about the Washington D.C.’s connection to Panama, the Panama Canal Zone, and this story of Kenneth Bancroft Clark can be seen in the exhibition Bridging the Americas: Community and Belonging from Panama to Washington DC in the Anacostia Community Museum Program Room. It is up indefinitely.

Latino-centered struggles for Civil Rights and Social Justice will be part of the upcoming exhibition Gateways. Opening December 2016,  Gateways explores the triumphs and struggles of Latino migrants and immigrants in four urban destinations: Washington, D.C., Baltimore, MD, Raleigh-Durham, NC and Charlotte, NC

Urban Waterways Research Trip: Bayou la Batre, Alabama

December 12, 2015 - Coden, Alabama - Paul Nelson with friends and supporters at the site of his former oyster processing plant which was wiped out during Hurricane Katrina. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 – Coden, Alabama – Paul Nelson with friends and supporters at the site of his former oyster processing plant which was wiped out during Hurricane Katrina.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution.

The last stop on our Gulf Coast tour was the historic town of Bayou La Batre, made famous by the movie Forrest Gump.  Here local activist and former 3rd generation shrimper Paul Nelson leads efforts to improve services for the town which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina when the highest storm surge ever recorded in the area (16 ft), and then again by the BP oil spill, 5 years later.

Mr. Nelson had a prosperous oyster business back in 2005, and a processing plant, the foundation of which is pictured below.  No stranger to rebuilding a business, Mr. Nelson restarted his fishing business as a younger man after another disaster, but says of this time, “I am too old to begin again.” Now, the foundation of his oyster processing plant is a home to an RV and trailer, which provide permanent housing for Mr. Nelson’s relatives, 10 years after Katrina first made shore.

December 12, 2015 - Coden, Alabama - The concrete foundation is all that remains of fisherman Paul Nelson's oyster processing plant which was wiped out during Hurricane Katrina. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 – Coden, Alabama – The concrete foundation is all that remains of fisherman Paul Nelson’s oyster processing plant which was wiped out during Hurricane Katrina.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 - Coden, Alabama - Paul Nelson gives a tour of Coden and Bayou La Batre, Alabama which was devastated by both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 – Coden, Alabama – Paul Nelson gives a tour of Coden and Bayou La Batre, Alabama which was devastated by both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 - Coden, Alabama - Paul Nelson gives a tour of Coden and Bayou La Batre, Alabama which was devastated by both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 – Coden, Alabama – Paul Nelson gives a tour of Coden and Bayou La Batre, Alabama, showing us a new waste treatment plant that the local government had built.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 - Coden, Alabama - Paul Nelson gives a tour of Coden and Bayou La Batre, Alabama which was devastated by both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 – Coden, Alabama – The Gulf Coast shoreline of Bayou La Batre, where vacation homes were rebuilt following Hurricane Katrina.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 - Coden, Alabama - Paul Nelson gives a tour of Coden and Bayou La Batre, Alabama which was devastated by both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 – Coden, Alabama – An ante-bellum home which was rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina destroyed it is situated on the Gulf Coast road in Bayou La Batre.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 - Coden, Alabama - A home abandoned since Hurricane Katrina. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 – Coden, Alabama – A home abandoned since Hurricane Katrina.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

We stopped at the local cemetery, where Mr. Nelson’s own stepson is buried. He died at the age of 28 of an unknown health issue.  Mr. Nelson has been active in advocating for the disbursement of Katrina/BP funds to help with the health issues he reports all around the Bayou La Batre – Coden communities.  He has written passionately on behalf of his family and neighbors, detailing the continuing travails in the community.  In a December 2010 letter submitted to ehumanrights.org, he writes:

Coden has never seen so many people pass away in such a short time. My neighbor Delaphine Barber, age 75 lost her home and died from a heart attack about a year after Katrina. Other neighbors who died, trying to survive in the [formaldehyde emitting] FEMA campers, and hoping to see their homes rebuilt were: Sally Dismukes, age 72, died of a heart attack; Tommy Barbour age 56, died of lung cancer; Michael Goleman, age 36 father of two teenage daughters, suicide; Shirley Clark, age 65, complications from a staph infection; Randy Hall, age 45, lung cancer; Nancy Maples, age 57. Most have spouses or children who are still hoping to see their family homes rebuilt. My mother Hilda Nelson died after living in a FEMA camper over a year and hoping for assistance to rebuild the family that never came…

December 12, 2015 - Coden, Alabama - The cemetery serving Coden and Bayou La Batre Alabama. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 – Coden, Alabama – The grave of Mr. Kevin Dewayne Craft, Mr. Nelson’s stepson, who died of an unknown health ailment in 2013 at the age of 28.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Mr. Nelson locates many of the community’s health problems to after an oil dispersant was sprayed over the Gulf Coast shores in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. The dispersant was meant to put the oil on top of the water at the bottom of the ocean.

Today Mr. Nelson continues to advocate on behalf of his beloved Bayou La Batre.  The first day we went to see him Mr. Nelson never showed up.  He was in the hospital dealing with complications from diabetes and blood clots.  Despite his illness, Mr. Nelson insisted we come back the next day, finishing the tour in his modest pre-fabricated home, where Urban Waterways researcher interviewed him for several hours.

December 12, 2015 - Coden, Alabama - Local activist Paul Nelson gives an interview in the trailer that serves as his home after his home was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 – Coden, Alabama – Local activist Paul Nelson gives an interview in the trailer that serves as his home after his home was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 - Coden, Alabama - A vignette in the home of Paul Nelson. Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

December 12, 2015 – Coden, Alabama – A vignette in the home of Paul Nelson.
Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

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The Gulf Coast seen from Bayou La Batre, the setting for the movie, Forrest Gump. Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Museum/Smithsonian Institution

All the interviews and audio we collected our available by making an appointment with the Anacostia Community Museum Archives.  We encourage you to visit our archives and use our research for your own studies.

 

 

 

Urban Waterways Newsletter Issue 6

Urban Waterways and the Impact of History

 

LouisvilleBefore aerial west to east

An east to west aerial view of the old Louisville waterfront. Photo: Louisville Waterfront Development Corporation

This sixth issue traces the history of the changing  nature of the relationships between urban waterways and their surrounding communities. Urban Waterways Newsletter 6

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