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Speakers salute court decision that led to integration

March 31, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - The March Madness surrounding the annual NCAA basketball tournament is in full swing, but a different kind of madness could be found on basketball courts in the 1950s and 1960s, when colleges could put only two "Negro" players on the court at a time during home games, or three during road games.

More than three black players were allowed only if a team was losing, said Felton Paige, chief of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights for the National Guard.

When, on March 19, 1966, Texas Western University started five black players against five white players from the University of Kentucky - and won, 72-65 - the game was changed forever, Paige said.

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Paige was one of several people who spoke Tuesday morning during a symposium dedicated to commemorating the 50th anniversary of the landmark court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. Speakers also addressed how segregation and racism affected the nation, and how integration has improved it.

The meeting was held at the Holiday Inn in Martinsburg.

Other speakers included Kenneth Marcus, with the U.S. Department of Education; Shawne Johnson, author of "Eden, Ohio" and "Getting Our Breath Back"; and Thomas Segar, director of Multicultural Affairs at Shepherd College.

Two seniors at Martinsburg High School read their award-winning essays on the court decision.

Life would be entirely different in a segregated world, wrote student Alexis Young.

"Is it fair? No it isn't fair to be judged by the color of your skin. It's not fair that you could walk in a room and not say a word but be hated by everyone," Young wrote.

"I have always believed that the true person lives within. If we went throughout life determining someone by their skin color, what a sad place this would be," he wrote.

Chera Schley-Cole wrote that the Brown decision "has allowed me the opportunity to ride a public school bus, go to a public school and to have friends of different nationalities. Children now have the right to expand their knowledge of other races from the friends that are made in school.

"The right to a 'full and equal access' to education has allowed blacks in the United States the opportunity to compete in the business world and to reach goals and to have jobs that were once unthinkable," she wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education came on May 17, 1954. The justices unanimously ruled that separate schools for white and black children were not equal. The 1896 "separate but equal" ruling established in Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned.

Shawn L. Smith, CEO of the Imani Foundation of Destiny Baptist Church in Martinsburg, spoke about what happened in Farmville, Va., in the 1950s.

The black high school in Farmville, in Prince Edward County, felt pressure from a growing student population. To keep up, tarpaper shacks were built and classes sometimes were held inside school buses, said Smith, who heard the story when he went to Farmville to attend Longwood University.

Students organized a two-week walkout and a lawsuit was filed seeking integration. A ruling declared that segregation was to continue, but that the schools should be made equal. The NAACP appealed and the case was lumped together with several others, including Brown v. BOE.

In 1959, under pressure to integrate, school officials in Prince Edward County instead closed all public schools, but offered tuition to white students to attend a new academy, Smith said.

The area's 1,800 black students had nowhere to go. For five years, only those black students able to attend school out of the area received an education, Smith said.

The schools reopened in 1964, but only recently was the issue addressed, with honorary degrees being given out to those who missed the chance to attend school, Smith said.

Keith Wheaton, a Martinsburg attorney, reviewed the facts and legal strategies of the Brown case.

The case involved a Topeka, Kan., elementary school girl who had to walk a mile to an all-black school even though there was a white school a few blocks from her home.

Lawyers arguing for the girl's father, Oliver Brown, and the other plaintiffs needed to show segregation caused ill effects among children. To prove it, they gave dolls to children, Wheaton said. Black children tossed aside black dolls and gravitated toward white dolls, feeling they were better and prettier, he said.

Despite the court's decision, schools were not integrated overnight and equality has not been fully achieved, Marcus said.

"The job is not done. The battle is not over," he said.

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