Black History Month

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

A lot has happened in the past 50 years. A cure for polio. The invention of the Internet. Human footprints on the moon. But of all the things that have happened, for many the most profound may have been a young African-American girl's courageous decision to seek admission to an all-white school right next door to her home in Topeka, Kansas.

[Photo: Dignitaries singing 'Lift Every Voice' at the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education celebration]
Shown singing "Lift Every Voice" are, from left to right, Belle Wheelan, Virginia Secretary of Education; State Senator Henry Marsh, formerly the Mayor of Richmond; Debra Jewell-Sherman, Richmond superintendent of schools, Pastor Benjamin Robertson, Cedar Street Memorial Baptist Church; and Virginia Commonwealth University Professor Emeritus Edward Peeples.

As was so often the case in America a half-century ago, the school door was barred and she was rebuffed. But, to the amazement of some, the relief of many, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that the decades-old doctrine of "separate but equal" was inherently unequal and, hence, unconstitutional.

Fifty years later, the Court's decision is still being debated, its full implications still in the process of being realized.

At a recent gathering at the Richmond, Virginia area office more than 75 HUD staff and friends gathered to both commemorate and celebrate the girl's courage and the Court's decision.

The focus of the event - put together by Ed Crook, Rheba Gwaltney, Jerryl Bennett, Sharon Rowe Downs, Judith Bryant, Doris Nesbit-Harris, Rodney Moody, Melissa Jones and Barbara Gordon - was a panel discussion of "Brown v. Topeka: 50 Years Later" with Virginia Secretary of Education Belle Whelan, Richmond Superintendent of Schools Deborah Jewell-Sherman, State Senator Henry Marsh, Virginia Commonwealth University Professor Emeritus Edward Peeples and Cedar Street Memorial Baptist Church Pastor Benjamin, a member of the national commission appointed by President Bush to honor the Brown decision.

All the panelists hailed the decision. The debate started only when discussion turned to how much progress had been made in the years since.

When he was a young boy, Pastor Robertson recalled, he lived near a rooster that crowed loud and clear all hours of the night and day. "Now's not the time to crow, I used to tell that rooster," the Pastor said adding that, for all the progress that's been made since Brown v. Topeka, now's not the time to "crow" in the struggle for civil rights. "There's way too much left to do," he said.

Senator Marsh, a private attorney who was also Richmond's first black Mayor suggested that more progress would have been made if more people were taking part in the electoral process. Not voting, he observed, is like driving a car that's not at full throttle. You don't go as far or get where you are going as fast he said, when your foot's not to the floor. If people fail to vote, he argued, it will take longer to do justice to the simple courage of a young, Topeka girl who some 50 years ago, changed American history and brightened America's future.

Tell us what your office has done to observe Black History Month. A special webpage has been set-up. Email your text and any photos (including captions) to Michael Fluharty, the FOCUS editor, in public affairs and we'll post them on the webpage.

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