Fred Bryant, the owner of Accents by Fred at 7519 Madison St., has a unique perspective on the Supreme Court decision known as Brown vs the [Topeka] Board of Education. You see, he was there. Bryant was a student at Topeka High School when the court handed down the decision in 1954. The 60th anniversary of the decision purportedly ending school segregation, takes place this year.
Bryant described the segregation in Topeka that provided the context for the Brown decision by saying that the west side of Topeka was mainly white and the east side was black. The few African American children who lived in the “white area” were bused to elementary schools on the black side of town. “We had separate swimming pools,” he recalled, “and the junior high and elementary schools where the blacks lived were all segregated.”
He explained why the junior high he went to was not 100 percent segregated. “I lived with my grandmother and grandfather,” he said, “and they lived in a small black neighborhood in the middle of the white part of town. There were about ten of us black kids in the otherwise all-white school. We were such a small percentage of the school that the whites didn’t care. We weren’t a threat.”
The same was true at Topeka High School. In Bryant’s 1956 yearbook, his is the only black face in the picture of the marching band, but his book is filled with signatures and messages from all of his white friends. Likewise, two African American girls are pictured because they were elected attendants to homecoming queens, and a male student is singled out as a star on the basketball team. Bryant again explained the acceptance of the four African American students as due to the fact that they weren’t a threat.
Richard Green, who lives just three blocks from Bryant’s store, was a student in a Topeka elementary school when the court overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson standard of “separate but equal.”
“Schools in Topeka,” Green remembered, “were separate, but they sure weren’t equal. It was not vicious segregation, but it was there and we knew it. For me the worst thing was that there was de facto segregation, but everyone kept quiet about it. You knew you couldn’t go into certain theaters or restaurants.”
“There was segregation by class as well as race,” said Bryant, who not only lived on the white side of town but in a nice neighborhood as well. “If you lived on the west side of Topeka and were black, you were considered uppity.”
Green went so far as to say, “In Topeka it wasn’t about color of skin. It was about the status of your parents. Fred was one of the luckier people in Topeka, because he was from the rich area. I was one of those who were considered poor trash. In sixth grade I got Ds and Fs, even though I was smart and read a lot. I know these grades were based on bias, because in both college and graduate school I was always on the honor roll.”
Both Bryant and Green agreed that Brown didn’t change the situation in the Topeka schools much in terms of race. Because the separation of races was based on location more than on policy, the only change was that black children who were of elementary school age and lived in white areas were no longer bused.
“What started to change in the schools,” said Bryant, “was the financial part. Before the Brown decision, the black schools got what was left over. Before 1954 they were separate but not equal. They didn’t have the same qualifications for teachers and didn’t have the same equipment. If it had been separate with equal chances, the situation would have been different.”
But, the main reason 1954 was not a big turning point in Bryant’s life is because he seemed to have a kind of “dual citizenship” in both black and white culture. Growing up mainly in Utica, New York—a town which was almost all white—until he moved to Topeka when he was in the seventh grade, he understood white culture and knew how to function in it.
“I would go everywhere,” he said. “That was just my nature. In high school I had white friends and black friends. I’d go to one party with friends who were all white and then go to another party where my friends were all black and in a part of town where my white friends would never go. I understood the two cultures better than most people, so I had choices. I had options.”
Bryant has fond memories of Topeka High School, despite the legal controversy swirling around the Topeka schools when he was a student in them. He has a chair in the high school library with his family name on the back and frequently attends annual class reunions.