TOPEKA — People wonder why Alice Lee isn’t angry.
The highest court in the country ruled 65 years ago that it was unconstitutional that Lee and other children were forced to attend segregated schools.
“I’ve learned a lot about it since I’ve been grown,” said the 78-year-old Topeka resident.
At the time, growing up amidst segregation — theaters without balconies were off limits, a hotdog purchased at a counter was “to go” and Topeka High School had a black attendant in homecoming royalty but never a black homecoming queen — was simply growing up.
“It was never said, but you just kind of knew,” Lee said.
Lee was born in February 1941 in Topeka, to Elmer Lee Sr. and Sybil Lee. She was about 13 or 14 years younger than a brother and sister. “I don’t think my parents were expecting me,” she said.
The family lived at 2006 Topeka, across the street from fairgrounds that would become home of the Kansas Expocentre.
Her father had worked in the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and later at Forbes Air Force Base. Her mother would die while Lee was young.
Lee was born with “very, very little pigmentation,” she said, giving little color to her skin and hair. Sight impairment required her to wear glasses. Her older siblings did not have the condition.
Lee’s parents were from Burlingame, where schools were integrated. In Topeka, though, elementary schools were segregated for the oldest Lee children and for Alice.
She started half-day kindergarten at Monroe Elementary School in 1946. The route she walked to Monroe, standing in the 1500 block of S.E. Monroe Street, required her to go north and then east past Harrison, Van Buren, Kansas and Quincy streets. Closer to the Lee home was the white children’s elementary school, Van Buren Elementary School, in the 1600 block of S.E. Van Buren Street.
Conversely, white children living closer to Monroe had to walk farther to reach Van Buren Elementary School, Lee pointed out.
Black children more disadvantaged than herself, in Lee’s opinion, were those living in North Topeka, around 1st and 2nd streets, and riding the bus to Monroe. A black teacher at Monroe drove them — and Lee — home after half-day kindergarten, she said.
As a child, Lee never wished she could attend Van Buren instead of Monroe.
“I guess when kids are little and playing and having a good time, you just don’t think about, ‘Should I really be here?’”
None of the plaintiff parents in Brown v. Board of Education had children in Lee’s class, although Linda Brown — daughter of Oliver Leon Brown, who was namesake of the Brown v. Board of Education — was a couple of years younger than Lee and attended Monroe.
Many plaintiffs had children attending one of the other three black elementary schools in Topeka: Buchanan, Washington and McKinley.
Even though plaintiffs’ children were not in her class, she knew some of those children or would come to know them.
“I went to church with (plaintiff) Shirley Hodison’s children, and they were at Buchanan,” Lee said. She knows Victoria Lawton Benson, the daughter of plaintiffs Richard and Maude Lawton. Nancy Todd, daughter of plaintiff Lucinda Todd, and Lee would come to know each other in high school.
Lee doesn’t remember her parents talking about the legal fight for school integration. A lot of people didn’t know all the work that went into the case, Lee said. Meetings at plaintiff Lucinda Todd’s house were kept confidential, so word wouldn't get back to the Topeka Board of Education, Lee said.
By the time the U.S. Supreme Court struck down separate-but-equal in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Lee had graduated from elementary school and was attending the integrated Crane Junior High School.
She looks back on her education at Monroe with respect for her teachers.
The teachers and principal at Monroe were black, Lee said, although every so often a white art teacher would visit the school.
“The teachers were always very helpful and they insisted that we get our work done. In second grade, the teacher would stay in at recess to help me with my math, and after school, other children, too, could get help,” she said.
Because of Lee’s sight problems, her teacher, reading a big book to a semicircle of children, would place Lee in the middle of the circle and closer to the book.
“I thought it was a very good education,” Lee said, who said the school books at Monroe were not castoff books.
They sat in close quarters at Monroe, with each flat desktop and chair hooked to the unit in front and the one behind it. A misbehaving child could lose part of recess time or even get spanked on the hand by a teacher wielding a ruler.
“All of our teachers really expected you to do a good job. I remember being told when we were going to be going to junior high to do our best because we were going to be going to school with whites and behave yourself,” she said.
Students didn’t get their photos taken every year, partly because parents couldn’t be expected to buy school pictures every year.
On March 3, 1949, a photo was taken of Monroe’s second-grade class. Sitting up smartly and smiling is Lee. Another girl in the photo is Luella Minner, who became a longtime friend and works at Topeka Public Library. Lee described what became of some of the other classmates:
“This guy worked at Santa Fe shops and he’s a pastor now.”
“He’s in California and he used to be an officer at a bank. He’s retired and he works with kids in Los Angeles who need extra help.”
“This one was a nurse at the V.A.”
Several have died, she said.
The photo of Lee’s second-grade class hangs just inside the entrance of Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in the old Monroe school. A park ranger said visitors often ask about the girl who appears to be white.
Lee is interested in another photo displayed at the historic site. Also taken in 1949, it shows a fifth-grade class at the all-white Randolph Elementary School in Topeka.
“You don’t see much difference in our rooms,” she observed of the similarities between Monroe and Randolph.
Topeka’s schools beyond elementary schools were integrated. Lee attended Crane Junior High for Grades 7, 8, and 9.
“You wanted to have at least one other black in your homeroom or in your classes,” she said, although there were some classes when she was the only black student.
Black players participated on sports teams, but there were no black cheerleaders, Lee recalled of junior high. She would go on to Topeka High School, graduating in 1959.
When her brother and sister attended the integrated Topeka High, there was a separate black basketball team, and the races separated for school parties. By the time Lee was in high school, there weren’t separate basketball teams and school parties.
Lee liked the structure of Topeka High School and said she always got help for her sight difficulties.
She had white friends among her classmates, but outside of school, students went their separate ways. Some white students were unaware of the segregation that still determined where blacks could eat or see shows. Around 4th Street, Lee said, was a black drugstore, barbershop and restaurants.
Finding a path
Lee did not embark on her eventual career path immediately upon high school graduation. She tried but didn’t prove adept using a Dictaphone, noting that people who were totally blind were more skilled at it.
For a while, she did housework.
It was on a visit to New York City to see a friend that she was advised to look into educational job opportunities. The 1960s saw the birth of Head Start and the Follow Through project, federal programs geared at helping disadvantaged children.
“I got a job working with Flossie Holland,” Lee said. Holland had been her fifth-grade teacher at Monroe, and Holland’s husband, J.B. Holland, had been Monroe’s principal.
Lee became a paraprofessional with Follow Through.
“I didn’t think I could get a job as a teacher,” she said, but she was encouraged to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Washburn University while working. She began in 1969 and finished her bachelor’s work in the summer of 1981.
“I didn’t expect to get a (teaching) job,” she said, but a teacher was leaving in the spring so she applied for that job. Her career — 11 years as a para and 23 years as a teacher of mostly first grade — has not entirely ended. She is a preschool substitute paraprofessional at Topeka USD 501’s Pine Ridge Prep School. On Fridays, she volunteers at the clothing bank for Doorstep Inc., which helps those in need.
Lee’s brother and sister have died. She lives on Topeka’s west side now.
She has visited the national historic site but said she still hasn’t seen everything.
On one visit, Lee recalled, she saw a letter dated March 1953 — about a year before the U.S. Supreme Court decision — from Topeka Superintendent of Schools Wendell Godwin to Minerva Washington, a black teacher.
Godwin cited the uncertain outlook with the court case pending and wrote that he was notifying teachers in the black schools that he could not offer them employment contracts for the 1953-54 school year.
“If the Supreme Court should rule that segregation in the elementary grades is unconstitutional, our Board will proceed on the assumption that the majority of people in Topeka will not want to employ negro teachers next year for white children.
“If it turns out that segregation is not terminated, there will be nothing to prevent us from negotiating a contract with you at some later date this spring. You will understand that I am sending letters of this kind to only those teachers of the negro schools who have been employed during the last year or two. It is presumed that, even though segregation should be declared unconstitutional, we would have a need for some schools for negro children and we would retain our negro teachers to teach them,” he wrote in part.
The impact of school segregation did not affect only students, but educators, too. Lee hopes that letter remains displayed at the national historic site.
Where she is a substitute para, the majority of children are black, some are Hispanic, and some are white.
“I think the children now are so used to it. I don’t think they think a lot about it. They just interact and play with each other. There’s not a group off playing,” she said.
“It’s different now.”