National Museum of American History Marks 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education

May 11, 2004

To mark the 50-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision that helped end legal segregation in the United States, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will open “Separate Is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education.” The one-year exhibition opens May 15 and closes May 30, 2005.

“In 2004, there will be a national conversation about the significance of Brown v. Board of Education,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “With this exhibition, the museum will lead its visitors to explore the question of what equal opportunity means in the diverse world of the 21st century.”

Morgan Stanley is sponsoring the exhibition. Additional generous support has come from The History Channel, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Smithsonian National Board, The N (the nighttime network for teens), the Deer Creek Foundation, the National Education Association, and Larry and Shelly Brown.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board struck down the 58-year-old segregation doctrine of “separate but equal” facilities, laid out in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson. The Plessy decision had enabled state governments to separate the races in many areas of daily life including restaurants, theaters, public transportation and public schools. The Brown decision stated that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This decision set the groundwork for the eventual desegregation of all aspects of daily life.

The exhibition’s central theme is that the Brown decision – through the efforts of lawyers, scholars, parents, students and community activists – transformed America. Using objects, images and video presentations, the exhibition will portray the struggle for social justice leading up to and following the Court’s ruling on the Brown case, while also examining the decision’s impact on today’s society in the U.S. and abroad.

"This exhibition will commemorate a point in our nation's past when we renewed our confidence in the power of the legal system in a free society,” said Alonzo Smith, co-curator of the exhibition. “It was a shining moment in American history."

The exhibition will have six main sections, beginning with “Segregated America.” Upon entering the gallery, visitors will be faced with images of segregated everyday life in the early 20th century, showing the hopes for racial equality that followed the Civil War and how racial and ethnic separation became institutionalized in the early 1900s.

The second section, “The Battleground: Separate and Unequal” will tell the story of the role education played in the fight to end legal segregation in the U.S. Visitors will be able to sit in a divided classroom and view vintage footage of segregated schools. In “An Organized Legal Campaign” the exhibition will showcase the central roles that Howard University Law School and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund played in organizing the court fight against segregation, focusing on the two leading civil rights attorneys, Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall.

The next area, “Five Communities Change a Nation,” will follow the members of the various communities behind the case and illustrate how the legal argument worked its way to the Supreme Court. This section will include the dining room table from the home of Lucinda Todd, secretary of the Topeka, Kan. NAACP, where the Brown case was born, and footage of the Court’s announcement and the public’s immediate reaction.

The exhibition will conclude with an examination of the legacy of Brown to help visitors understand how the case gave hope to millions to press for social justice, yet unleashed severe reactions among those who feared change. The final two sections, “A Landmark in American Justice” and “America Since Brown,” include a portion of the Woolworth lunch counter from Greensboro, N.C., site of a 1960 sit-in protest; materials from the 1963 March on Washington; and protest signs from recent demonstrations concerning affirmative action at the University of Michigan.

Educational Outreach 

With additional funding from exhibition sponsor Morgan Stanley, the museum will be offering a variety of educational materials and programs including a resource guide for grades 4-12. The companion Web site,http://americanhistory.si.edu/brown, will feature a virtual tour of the exhibition and a “reflections” section where students can share their thoughts on the legacy of the Brown case. Throughout the year, the museum will host a series of public programs featuring films, symposia and family events.

“It’s important for students of all ages to understand that without Brown v. Board their classes would look much different,” said Glass. “Since not every school child can visit the exhibition in Washington, it became a museum priority to find a way to bring the exhibition to them.”

On May 19, the museum will host two electronic field trips to allow teachers and students across the nation to visit the exhibition and meet the curators without ever leaving their classrooms. Information on how to participate in the field trip and on receiving the curriculum will be posted on the exhibition Web site: http://americanhistory.si.edu/brown.

Public Programs

On May 17, the official anniversary of the decision, the museum will host a program with Jack Greenberg. In 1954, Greenberg was one of a half-dozen lawyers who argued the Brown case before the Supreme Court, and he later succeeded Thurgood Marshall as director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He will be discussing his books, “Brown v. Board of Education: Witness to a Landmark Decision,” and “Crusaders in the Courts: Legal Battles of the Civil Rights Movement.”


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The National Museum of American History traces American heritage through exhibitions of social, cultural, scientific and technological history. Collections are displayed in exhibitions that interpret the American experience from Colonial times to the present. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site at http://americanhistory.si.edu or call (202) 633-1000.