Oliver Brown was a welder for the Santa Fe Railroad living in Topeka, Kansas. His daughter went to a public school. But instead of walking seven blocks from their home to Sumner Elementary. Linda had to ride in a bus every day. The Browns were black. Sumner Elementary was for white students only and it was against the law for Linda to attend.
In 1951, Brown joined others in a class action against his local Board of Education. They sued on the grounds that laws designed to segregate white children from children of color was unconstitutional.
Racially segregated schools were found all over the country. It was against the law for a white student to go to schools designed for children of color. And of course, children of color were absolutely prohibited from going to a white school.
After years of arguing their case through the federal courts, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled these laws violated the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This week marked the sixty-second anniversary of perhaps the most famous opinion from the high court.
That opinion changed the way we do things. Racially-segregated schools are not only unconstitutional, but the changes in our society have made it repugnant for most people. But what about Hawaii?
Unlike the Jim Crow South or Kansas in the 1950s, the territory didn’t have black letter laws that racially segregated the schools. It was more subtle than that. Hawaii took different approach.
Mandatory education for children in the islands goes back to the days of the Hawaiian Kingdom. In 1835, the government started requiring children to go to school. Back then, most of the children were either Hawaiian or the descendants of white missionaries. The mass immigration of Asian and other European workers had yet to come.
Segregation started when the missionaries, most if not all of whom were white, built schools designed primarily to educate their own children and to isolate them from the native population. Perhaps the most famous example of these schools is Punahou School established in 1842. (In contrast, the Lahainaluna Seminary in 1831 was designed to educate the Hawaiian people.).
By the time the United States acquired the islands as a territory at the start of the twentieth century, the majority of public school students were Asian-American children of plantation laborers. The few haole students tended to go to private schools.
But after the expansion of the military in the islands brought a new wave of whites migrated to the islands, newcomers were hesitant to send their children to school with the Asian-American sons and daughters of plantation workers.
The federal government reported in 1920 that many white and Hawaiian parents did not want to send their kids to public schools “because their children would be outnumbered in their classes by the orientals, who have little in common with them and whose language difficulties impede the progress of all.” Parents also complained that integrating proper English speakers with students from non-English speaking homes held them back. They also feared that if they were left with a majority of “non-American” students, they would be susceptible to foreign influences.
The territory’s education agency, the Department of Public Instruction, responded by setting up special schools for students who were proficient in proper English. Pidgin wouldn’t cut it.
And so a dual education system grew in Hawaii. English Standard Schools like Roosevelt High School on Oahu or Kaunoa Elementary in Spreckelsville on Maui had a majority of haole students. Everyone else went to “district schools” like McKinley High School.
As the years went on, criticism mounted. In 1940, a little elementary school in Nuuanu Valley was selected to become an English Standard School. The local kids at Maemae Elementary were going to be bussed out of their community to make way for haoles. Protests erupted in front of Iolani Palace.
Parents with Asian, Hawaiian, and Portuguese surnames petitioned the government arguing that the segregation of children who don’t speak proper English was prejudicial and unfair. After all, it was up to the schools to teach proper English in the first place. Maemae Elementary ended up becoming a partial English Standard School anyways and some kids had to be bussed out.
Gradually, the pressure lead to the end of the English Standard School system. By the time the Browns won their case in 1954, Hawaii had become more integrated. Of course, there were still holdouts. Maui held on to its English Standard Schools until 1963.
Most people these days agree with the holding and agree that the Hawaii experiment was a bad one. And yet, to this day, there are still schools that are predominantly white and those where most students are people of color.
It’s still happening.