Racial segregation in Mid-west?
January 21, 2009 3:02 PM   Subscribe

How prominent was racial segregation in the western parts of the Mid-west (Kansas/Nebraska area) in the early-to-mid-50s?

I heard someone the other day mention that when they were growing up in that area in the 50s that there was absolutely no segregation and just wanted to see how accurate that was. I know the Civil Rights Movement didn't start until late 50s/late 60s, but she made it sound like there was no segregation (such as all races going to same schools and such)

(Note: I know racial segregation is wrong and unethical, I just want to know the accuracy of a statement made the other day.)
posted by Deflagro to Society & Culture (19 answers total)
posted by goethean at 3:13 PM on January 21, 2009

Racial tension in Omaha, Nebraska
posted by goethean at 3:14 PM on January 21, 2009

Are you familiar with the court case Brown v Board of Education?
posted by birdherder at 3:16 PM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't give you a reference that matches your question, but here's one anecdote:

My (very white) father told me that when he was a kid (late 50s/early 60s) in northern Minnesota, his parents housed a black civil rights activist that was traveling through the area.. The town contained essentially no black people that he knew of, so this was something of an event. During the time that the activist was at my grandparents, other parents in the town refused to let their children play with my father. He said some of his friends definitely disappeared for a few days when the activist was there and definitely reappeared immediately after the activist left.
posted by saeculorum at 3:16 PM on January 21, 2009

There's a fairly extensive article on this page called "Race Relations in the Sunflower State" [pdf]. Don't forget that Kansas still ranges around 91% white, with huge majorities of non Native American minority populations centered in the Eastern part of the state (Topeka, Wichita, Kansas City) and so you you move even further West there were and are simply fewer and fewer minorities.
posted by Science! at 3:19 PM on January 21, 2009

Best answer: I wasn't born until 1969, but I think my parents sent me to a catholic school in first grade at least partly to avoid bussing, so integration must have been a bit of a concern in Omaha, NE at least as late as 1975. It looks like it continued until 1999, so I doubt the late 50s/60s would have been any more progressive.

I don't think racial separation as as formalized as the south. For instance, I don't remember ever seeing separate bathrooms or anything like that. That's probably more a function of there just not being all that many people to segregate though. There wouldn't have been very many people of color in Nebraska or Kansas outside of the cities.
posted by willnot at 3:20 PM on January 21, 2009

I don't know if schools in Kansas City, MO used to be officially segregated, but they sure were de facto segregated. People often talk about the glory days of a particular High School, Southwest High School, when it was one of the top public high schools in the nation. That happens to be when it completely or almost completely white, upper middle and upper class. The neighborhood it's in is quite affluent and almost all white. Like I said, I don't know if schools were officially segregated, as I didn't live through this, but they were de facto, and there was a desegregation case in federal court that only just ended 5-10 years ago.

Also, a teacher I had in high school told a story of when he was growing up in Johnson County, KS (part of the KC metro, on the Kansas Side of the border), when he was riding the bus with his mother. They took a seat behind the sign that designated the black seating area, and asked his mom if they ought to move toward the front (they're white), and his mom said to pay no attention to the sign. So there ya go, second hand anecdotal evidence that were was (official even) segregation in Kansas. Oh, and there was that whole Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka Kansas case.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 3:29 PM on January 21, 2009

There's a building here in Downtown Des Moines, IA that tells the story of Edna Griffin who staged sit-ins and forced a lunch counter to serve African Americans in 1948.

I think there was less of this sort of segregation here in Iowa in those days, and the state already had laws on its books that allowed for the owner of the lunch counter to be promptly prosecuted for discrimination.
posted by TrialByMedia at 4:00 PM on January 21, 2009

Er, I meant to say there's a plaque on said building.
posted by TrialByMedia at 4:01 PM on January 21, 2009

This state-by-state map of so-called "sundown towns" may be useful.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:32 PM on January 21, 2009

You ever heard of Brown v Board of Education? That was Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, filed in 1951. This page may also be useful.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:38 PM on January 21, 2009

I heard someone the other day mention that when they were growing up in that area in the 50s that there was absolutely no segregation and just wanted to see how accurate that was.

Growing up, eh? I would assume that this person is perhaps naively assuming that because they don't remember separate water fountains, and "no coloreds" signs, and perhaps never witnessed someone being turned away, they thought that segregation didn't exist.

When everyone just goes about their business (and the black folks just use the back door as is custom) there's no need to post those crass signs, amirite? Because it's not SEGREGATION, people are just sticking with their own kind the way people do. (Adapted from explanations from earlier generations of my own family.)
posted by desuetude at 4:47 PM on January 21, 2009

Best answer: I think willnot's observation about there not being enough people to segregate hits the nail on the head, at least for the small towns and very rural areas (the bigger cities were a completely different story). My parents grew up in small-town Kansas and went to high school in the 50s. My father's graduating class had only one black student, but they had all grown up together and been playmates since elementary school, and I think in their isolated little world the idea of racial tension just wasn't at the forefront of their daily lives. That's not to say that life in rural Kansas was a utopia of racial harmony -- there are plenty of hardcore racist hicks around here to this day, but there just wasn't enough of a population of other races in the 50s to make it an issue.

I remember my father talking about travelling with his class to a bigger city (can't remember if it was Topeka or Wichita) for a field-trip of some kind and everyone being shocked and shaken when a diner owner made grumbling comments to their teacher about not wanting to serve their black classmate. Of course they had heard about segregation and racial problems in the news, but none of them had ever witnessed it first-hand.
posted by amyms at 4:52 PM on January 21, 2009

I can say for fact that there were restrictive covenants on real estate in suburban Kansas up until fairly late, 50s or 60s This is restricted to Johnson County, but I doubt there was a significant black population elsewhere in the state. It also extended to Jews, which make up a sizable population of some upmarket areas and where I keep hearing of stories about these restrictive covenants.

Given that there is so much space out here, segregation and racism is sort of hard to define. My friend's grandparents bought some land in rural Kansas. I remember visiting and going to this beautiful 19th c. Catholic missionary church with them. When we went out to the bars (3 for a town with a population of 300, heh) people made fun of us for being "Catholic," and there were several jibes at the pope! Really?!

It might be hard to distinguish racism from small town otherness. I think these are two separate things, though they manifest themselves the same.
posted by geoff. at 5:51 PM on January 21, 2009

Oops. 1991.
posted by RedEmma at 7:22 PM on January 21, 2009

(It occurs to me that my post could've read snarky where I didn't intend. Just to clarify, I meant that the OPs friend was perhaps too naive to catch on to de facto segregation as a child. The amitrite rant was the recreation of a adult justification perspective.)
posted by desuetude at 7:42 PM on January 21, 2009

My Dad grew up in small-town Nebraska, and race wasn't much of an issue because there just weren't that many African-americans in the area. In 1945 he joined the Army and was confronted with racial issues for the first time.

He likes to tell the story of a fellow officer from Alabama who shared with him a view of regional racism that may not be too far off the mark:

"Down south," he explained, "we don' mind n_____ gettin' close, but we don' want 'em gettin' high. Y'all [yankees] don' mind 'em gettin' high, but you don' want 'em too close".

(Of course "high", in this context, refers to social status.)
posted by dinger at 11:11 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

The University of Kansas has a *lot* of civil rights historical documents preserved at the Spencer Research Library.


They now claim to have an online search system for their archives... When I was an undergrad at KU using the Research Library involved asking one of the knowledgeable archivists where to find something and then gently photocopying under their watchful eye. If you can visit or arrange something from afar, the Spencer Research Library is an invaluable resource.

Kansas actually had early, significant civil rights action that has been lost from many civil rights histories. The documents available at the Spencer will narrate this for you (I helped an ex do research on civil rights issues in KS).
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 2:24 PM on January 22, 2009

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