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Southern Childhoods

Five members of the U-M community
recall the impact of the 1954 case
that outlawed racial segregation in schools

By Deborah Meyers Greene


2004 U-M Theme Semester

In 1954, the Supreme Court changed the course of American history. Its decision in Brown v. Board of Education ended legal segregation in public education, energized the civil rights movement and engaged the country in a national conversation about race and rights that continues to this day.

The University of Michigan is in the midst of a semester-long commemoration of the Brown v. Board decision, to take stock of this difficult and yet hopeful half-century in American race relations.

The website a clearinghouse for the commemoration's events, speakers, classes and community projects. Check on it for the most up-to-date information on the Theme Semester.

On May 17, 1954, in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas , the United States Supreme Court unanimously declared an end to the principle of “separate but equal” in American education.

The University community contains many persons who recall the impact of the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown upon their childhoods. Some of them Michigan Today contacted said that the memories continued to be too upsetting for them to discuss publicly. But five members of the U-M community who lived through the turbulent changes in the South in 1954 agreed to tell their stories.

The court's judgment in Brown is broadly recognized as the first serious blow to the comprehensive system of laws collectively referred to as “Jim Crow,” which codified separation of the races and limited the freedom and options of former slaves in the South following the Civil War.

As the stories below reveal, America's “peculiar institution” of slavery and segregation fostered different patterns of awareness and response in each individual. To some who grew up in the Jim Crow South, the social arrangement was accepted as the norm, beyond notice; for them, maturity and familiarity with other social arrangements led to a rethinking of racial segregation. To others, an acute awareness of injustice came early on, with daily reminders; they learned how to endure and adapt to segregation, as well as how to resist and overcome it.

Click below to read the individual stories:

Richard W. Tillinghast, professor of English, director U-M Bear River Writers' Conference

Adye Bel Evans, U-M librarian emerit

Billy Joe Evans, professor emeritus of chemistry

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, professor of biological chemistry, professor of chemistry

Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs, professor of music, senior counselor to the president for the arts, diversity and undergraduate affairs





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