A legacy of racism and lost opportunities

Bob Buckley
Legal perspectives
Bob Buckley

I was born the year before Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954. It arose from a challenge to segregated education in Topeka, Kansas. Of course, it signaled the end of segregated schools in the United States. That it took almost a century after slavery ended on June 19, 1865, and the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, to establish full equality in education is amazing.

Brown v. Board of Education ended the “separate but equal” doctrine established by one of the worst decisions in the history of our country, Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1896, the Supreme Court codified the constitutional doctrine for racial segregation laws as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality. Plessy legitimized many state laws seeking to re-establish white supremacy. Racism is a significant part of the history of the United States.

I had two experiences in my life that brought home the reality of racism in my own backyard. My dad owned a building on Lexington Street two blocks east of the courthouse in Independence. For many years, it was the home of our family business, Independence Laundry & Dry Cleaning. When I entered high school, my father insisted that I work in the laundry during the summer. My motivation to get an education was due in part to working 10 hours per day in a hot laundry for three months during the summer.

There were three restrooms in the building. Most of the employees who worked there were women, some being African-American women. Two of the restrooms were for women and one was for men. One of the restrooms had a white sign on it and the other had a black sign on it. All women used both restrooms, but those signs remained in existence long after my dad bought the building. My mother and father were not racist in any respect. We were raised to treat all people with respect. In retrospect, my father should have removed the black sign. It was a vestige of separate but equal.

The second experience occurred at William Chrisman High School on a Saturday afternoon in the fall of 2001 when Larry Robinson, perhaps the best athlete to ever come out of Independence, was inducted into the school’s hall of fame. Larry had passed away, and his brother and sister came to receive the award posthumously. I spent some time talking to his brother, Vernon. He was born and raised in Independence but did not attend Chrisman. He went to Young School a block from his family home, which was the school in Independence for black students before high school. He rode the bus to Lincoln High School and graduated the same year that Brown v. Board of Education was handed down. He told me with great sadness that he was happy that Larry was being honored, but he was sad because he never had the opportunity his brother did to participate in sports because each day after school he had to hop on the bus and ride back to Independence. Vernon passed away a few years ago.

I had spent some time at Young School, which is being renovated by Habitat for Humanity to honor the memory of Hiram Young. Young was a slave who had a business making yokes and wagons for settlers heading west in the years before the Civil War. He bought freedom for himself and his family and strongly supported education for African-Americans. The Independence School District used the school after segregation ended. The high school special-education students were not mainstreamed in the 1970’s and were sent to Young School. I substitute taught in the fall of 1975 after I graduated from college and was sent there on multiple occasions to teach special education students.

Young School commemorates one of the great citizens in the history of Independence, but it also reminds us of a time of segregation. It is ironic that a man who was widely respected by white society during his life despite the color of his skin was honored with his name on a segregated school. The story of Vernon Robinson Sr. brought that home to me.

Critical race theory has become a lightning rod in this country. In September 2020, President Trump issued an executive order excluding from federal contracts any diversity and inclusion training interpreted as containing “Divisive Concepts,” “Race or Sex Stereotyping,” and “Race or Sex Scapegoating.” Among the content considered “divisive” is critical race theory.

Critical race theory is an academic movement of civil rights scholars and activists who seek to critically examine the law as it intersects with issues of race. I do not have enough space in this column to discuss it further, but I plan to write my next column on it in an attempt to educate readers on the subject and the conservative opposition to it. I frankly did not fully understand the subject until I began reading about it. The American Bar Association has recently published an article on the subject. Whether you are for it or against it, I think we should all understand it and have a civil debate on the subject. So, stay tuned.

Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence. Email him at bbuckley@wagblaw.com.