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Museum exhibits offer lessons about significance of Brown case

By Fredreka Schouten | Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON - The image is seared into the national memory: riot police training fire hoses on black schoolchildren protesting segregation in Birmingham, Ala.

But a lesser-known photo - of a small black boy cradling a white doll - tells an equally wrenching tale of racism in America.

The 1940s image by legendary photographer Gordon Parks documented how segregation created a sense of inferiority among blacks. Next to the black child is the brown-skinned doll he cast aside.

These "doll tests" played a key role in the fight to end school segregation, a fight that ultimately led to the Supreme Court's landmark desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.


Children stand outside an elementary school in Hurlock, Md., in this historic photo. The image and early papers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are part of an exhibit opening in May at the Library of Congress in Washington. (Library of Congress/NAACP photo)

The Parks photo is one of dozens of artifacts the Library of Congress has pulled together for a new exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of the ruling. The exhibit, "With an Even Hand: Brown v. Board at Fifty," is one of dozens around the country that offer a chance to learn more about the groundbreaking case and how black scholars, lawyers and activists have worked to dismantle school segregation.

For those who can't make the trek to museums, a wealth of information is available online. On May 19, for instance, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History will offer a virtual field trip of its Brown exhibit for middle school and high school students.

The Brown decision, decades in the making, fueled the wider battle for civil rights and helped end legal segregation in all aspects of American life.

"It really is a profound milestone in American history," said Brent Glass, the museum's director.

A look at the exhibits:

- "With an Even Hand: Brown v. Board at Fifty" opens May 13 and runs through Nov. 13 at the Library of Congress, 10 First St. SE, Washington, D.C.

In addition to records of the doll tests pioneered by black social psychologist Kenneth Clark, the exhibit includes papers and photographs by lawyer Charles Houston that document the plight of children in blacks-only schools.

It also features early papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which led the attack on school segregation, and handwritten notes from Supreme Court justices on the eve of their historic ruling. The exhibition is free and open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

The library's Web site is located at www.loc.gov.

- "Separate Is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education," opens Saturday and runs through May 30, 2005, at the National Museum of American History, 14th St. and Constitution Ave. NW, in Washington. It traces the fight for social justice that led to Brown and the tumultuous battles for civil rights that followed the decision.

The exhibit includes the robe worn by Thurgood Marshall, who was the nation's first black Supreme Court justice and who argued the Brown case as an NAACP lawyer. It also includes the Woolworth's lunch counter from Greensboro, N.C., where black students staged a six-month sit-in to protest segregation.

The museum is free and is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas. The exhibit's Web site offers instructions for participating in a May 19 live, interactive field trip of the exhibition.

- The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site will open Monday at the former blacks-only Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kan. Topeka was the hometown of the Rev. Oliver Brown, lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court desegregation case. The National Park Service runs the museum.

Exhibits include a "Hall of Courage," a narrow hallway covered with images from the 1960s South. The exhibit requires visitors to walk in the footsteps of civil rights activists in places like Birmingham, Ala. "It feels like you are right there in the street with the epithets being screamed at you and the fire hoses on," said LaTonya Miller, the historic site's spokeswoman.

The Brown site, at 1515 SE Monroe St., is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. You also can visit it on the Web.

- A Brown exhibit opens Monday at Howard University School of Law, home to the key architects of the legal attack on school segregation. The exhibit, which runs through July 25, chronicles the lives and struggles of blacks from the 1600s to the mid-1960s, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act banning segregation in public facilities.

The free exhibit is located in the school's law library at 2900 Van Ness St., NW, in Washington. It is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays between May 18 and May 30. Between June 1 and July 25, the exhibit will be open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays. The exhibit operates a Web site, too.

More to explore

Court decision changed lives for blacks in rural community

Four Farmville, Va., residents recall how the Brown ruling affected them. Read their stories and listen to audio comments in an interactive gallery of vignettes.

Interactive timeline: Desegregation moves forward and back

From the 1950s to today, learn about key events in black Americans' struggle for equality in education.

Students share their views about race and school integration

In audio interviews, students from the Louisville, Ky., area say they value diversity but note that self-segregation is common.

Internet chock full of Brown resources

Browse a list of sites where you can learn more about the legacy of the Brown decision.