Robinson Shares Voices of the Brown Generation

March 27, 2003
Mildred Robinson
Law professor Mildred Robinson shared the results of a survey of the legal academe regarding the Supreme Court's Browndecision.

Law professor Mildred Robinson remembers clearly the day the Supreme Court handed down the Brown vs. Board of Education decision ruling that "separate but equal" schools violated the 14th Amendment. She was in fourth grade, and her father, the principal of her segregated South Carolina school, came into the schoolyard, ringing the bell that normally signaled the end of recess. As the students gathered around him he announced the decision to the children, and they danced and laughed, "perhaps without knowing why," Robinson told the audience during her chair lecture inaugurating the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Charitable Foundation Professorship March 25 at the Law School.

Robinson teamed up with law professor Richard Bonnie in surveying the country's law academe about the impact — if any — of Brown in their neighborhoods. "That case had a profound impact on both of our lives," she said. "We [also] wondered what others of our generation could and would recall and share."

Brown was so incendiary that schools in Charlottesville were closed for a year to avoid integration. The mixed reaction from states to ending "de jure" segregation also yielded mixed reports from survey respondents. Robinson said the facts show " Brown's effect was much more muted than any of us could have imagined." Her school, which included elementary and secondary grades, was not desegregated while she was there. By 1964 fewer than 1 percent of students in 11 southern states attended desegregated schools. The 1964 Civil Rights Act ultimately accomplished what Brown could not, she said, in fulfilling the goal of desegregation.

"Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments," she said. It is necessary to fulfill the most basic civic duties, prepare children for careers, and awaken the child to cultural values, she added. "It is no overestimation to declare that an educated citizenry is the glue that holds our society together."

While schools are no longer legally segregated, the "debate over the meaning of Brown continues." She hoped the survey's results would help citizens think constructively about the shift in the public paradigm that followed the decision.

Robinson noted that there was little data documenting the extent of school segregation in 1954, although we do know that children in 21 states and Washington, D.C. were enrolled in segregated schools. Robinson and Bonnie's survey targeted a seemingly implausible group — legal academicians born during 1937-1954. That group would have been "overwhelmingly upper-class, white and male" in 1954, but they represent an accurate picture in light of white male dominance of the legal profession during the same period, she said. In 1940, African-Americans comprised less than five-tenths of 1 percent of the nation's lawyers, while women comprised 3 percent during the same period. Now about one-third of law professors are women, 7 percent are black, and 14 percent overall are minorities.

Robinson and Bonnie mailed about 4,800 surveys in the winter of 2001 and received 800 responses. The survey asked such questions as whether the respondent specifically recalled hearing about Brown, and if so, what they remember; what changes occurred in their school as a result (if any); and what city and state they were living in at the time. The respondents were mostly white (88 percent) and male (71 percent), and most fell between the ages of 5-12 (52 percent) in 1954. Twenty percent were born in a state with segregation. Because of the low responses from the Southeast, Robinson said they are in the process of re-surveying that area.

"I suspect there's some reluctance to participate, so we're trying again."

Robinson said 25 percent of the respondents recalled hearing of the decision, and a number shared their recollections. One white respondent — a high school student in 1954, remembered taking a poll for the school newspaper of what students thought of the decision — 25 percent were in favor, 25 percent didn't favor the decision, and 50 percent didn't care (some things don't change, Robinson joked). Another respondent thought the decision didn't impact him, only the South. Another recalled a teacher declaring that she refused to teach a racially mixed class of students.

The younger age group was more apparently affected by the adults around them. There was uncertainty — what would happen next? One black respondent reported that he remembered being glad to be able to prove he was as smart as whites. When another student asked his parents what was wrong with the kids that had to go to a separate (black) school, the parents responded that "nothing was wrong with the children — there was something wrong with the adults."

Others reported tension in schools. While one student recalled armed troopers of the 101st Airborne being called in to protect black students, another respondent remembered how as a seventh-grader he thought a lone black student in his Richmond school would be scared. The decision also affected other minorities, as school boards struggled with how to assign Asian students, for example, and one respondent recalled how Native Americans were no longer compelled to leave home to attend Bureau of Indian Affairs schools.

"One writer reports she was harassed after making friends with a black classmate," Robinson said.

Several wrote about their youthful irritation that public swimming pools were closed on hot days, to avoid integration. Some reported becoming aware of how housing patterns affected discrimination, while others recalled that "integration" merely put white students on the higher academic track in classes, while still enforcing separation. Other respondents recalled becoming aware of other kinds of ethnic or cultural discrimination.

Robinson noted that only one-third commented on their personal experiences as a result of the decision. Seventeen percent thought their school was directly affected, 12 percent said integration occurred as a result of the ruling, 2 percent were reassigned to different schools, 2 percent reported being bussed, and 1 percent recall schools being closed.

Robinson warned that school resegregation today is "undeniable." On average white students attend schools that are 80 percent white, while blacks on average attend schools that are 54 percent black. City schools are overwhelmingly non-white and suburban areas are resegregating along race and income levels. Schools in the South that had in recent years been the most integrated in the nation are rapidly becoming resegregated, she said.

"Resegregation is not a southern phenomenon, it's a national tragedy," she said. It "bodes ill of our expectations as a nation." While people of color make up 30 percent of the nation's population today, that number will rise to 50 percent in the future, she said.

She recalled one respondent from a small town in Virginia who had never experienced classroom diversity until college, where he met blacks, Asians, Jews, uncloseted gays and "preppies." She said for the few Americans who do attend college, diversity comes late in the game, when it is harder to overcome prejudices. Young children have a compelling interest to learn about other racial differences, or rather about universal commonalities, she said, "for education is increasingly the sole national common denominator."

Robinson said her own epiphany about being able to compete with whites did not come until after college, when she worked as a systems engineer for IBM. She was sitting in a class with other systems engineers and realized "that I could do that" — and better than some others in the room. "The opportunity to successfully go one-on-one was important in helping me form that conviction," she said.

Robinson quoted her daughter's graduate school application essay, in which her daughter wrote about the disbelief she and her peers felt at Charlottesville's segregated past. "It is this disbelief that I love," her daughter wrote. Brown "catalyzed a social metamorphosis that has come of age in my generation."

"Would that this view become the common American experience," Robinson concluded.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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