Having grown up in Topeka, Kansas, I have a profound and ironic connection to the nascent Civil Rights movement. Before 1954, which happened to be the year I started Kindergarten, racial segregation was common in American schools, as it was in Topeka.
Public school administrators forced African-American children to attend schools often encumbered by substandard facilities and many miles from their homes, although white-only schools existed in nearby neighborhoods.
This inequity of course led to Oliver L. Brown et. al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka.
Brown et al. v. Board of Education was a case that contested the Kansas statute of 1879 permitting the segregation of public elementary schools. At the very least, the national focus accorded to the Brown decision and its unprecedented outcome in the Supreme Court make it a legal landmark. The plaintiffs argued that separate elementary schools were an impediment to black children's education.
I had no awareness of this Supreme Court decision during my first few years in elementary school, and Southwest Elementary School (now Whitson Elementary) remained mostly white. There is not a single individual of color in any of my class photos from that time.
However, as we started the 6th grade, my class anticipated a special teacher, someone who had developed a celebrity status in our school—Mr. J. B. Holland.
A kind and erudite African-American teacher, Mr. Holland stopped by our class three times weekly to teach science. Up to that point, I had been an average student, demonstrating modest enthusiasm for learning, but Mr. Holland stimulated a dormant zeal for science; he set fire to my passion for learning about chemistry and biology. I remember rehearsing arcane and difficult biology terms, with atypical effort and repetition, to impress this extraordinary educator and to win his encouragement. He commanded attention in the classroom, and his wit and clarity opened minds.
I was not alone in my reactions to Mr. Holland. Here is how he has been described in historical background information concerning Monroe Elementary School, epicenter of the Brown decision:
J. B. Holland might have been one of the "supreme" black teachers of Topeka. Frank Wilson served as principal in the newly-integrated Whitson Elementary School over Holland, who had once been principal of Monroe Elementary School. Wilson praised Holland as "one of the most outstanding teachers I had ever come across." He also said that parents were anxious to get their children into a class with Mr. Holland because of his reputation as an entertaining and motivating instructor: "They would fight and bleed and die to get into that class."
Growing up in a significant crucible of racial divisiveness, I nevertheless owe my lifelong passion for learning to a man who probably lived daily with veiled and obvious Jim Crow realities everywhere in Topeka but inside his magical classroom. I know from subsequent adult conversations with my classmates that Mr. Holland was an influential early mentor to most of us in our long-term educational quest.
This story has been permanently encapsulated as oral history in the Library of Congress, my firsthand witness to the American Civil Rights Movement.
Many Baby Boomers who received stimulating and inspiring lessons in life from Mr. Holland owe his memory a debt of gratitude.
Many others growing up elsewhere also had positive formative experiences directly or indirectly because of African-American mentors: coaches, ministers, college educators, physicians, civic leaders, professional athletes, Hollywood actors, and, of course, Martin Luther King.
Baby Boomers sat on the front row of racial integration in America, and now it is our time to demonstrate our thankfulness for the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the brave souls who led this nation's Civil Rights movement.
I encourage those who grew up during the 1950's, 60's and 70's to reflect upon their own discoveries and awakenings that were nurtured by African-American heroes, personal and public. Please post your memories and appreciation in the comments section.