Holocaust Museum explores lesser-known origins of Brown v. Board of Education
Ophelia De Laine Gona is seen in front of a childhood photo of herself at a new exhibition at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. The exhibition covers the first lawsuit that was part of Brown v. Board of Education. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
HOLOCAUST MUSEUM EXHIBITION
“COURAGE: The Vision to End Segregation”
What: A traveling exhibition that traces the saga of Rev. J.A. De Laine and the citizens of Clarendon County, S.C. who brought a pivotal lawsuit challenging racial segregation in public schools.
When: Through April 21
Where: Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie.
Background: Created by the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C. and made possible by a grant from Bank of America. The Golder Family Foundation is the lead sponsor for all Special Exhibitions at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.
Updated: March 8, 2013 6:41AM
The “sanctioned” history of the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education, hasn’t always been easy for Joseph A. De Laine Jr. and his sister, Ophelia De Laine Gona to hear.
They know that popular accounts of the story are often incomplete — sometimes even inaccurate — because they don’t include the pivotal role their father and the citizens of Clarendon County, S.C., played in ending segregation in public schools. The siblings have repeatedly tried to set the record straight, but there has been push back, a stubborn unwillingness in some cases to better learn the truth.
The Illinois Holocaust Museum’s latest exhibition, arriving just in time for Black History Month, details the too-often-missing piece of Brown v. Board of Education background. “COURAGE: The Vision to End Segregation, The Guts to Fight for It” provides a chronology of the Rev. J.A. De Laine and Clarendon County residents who challenged racial segregation in public schools through the courts.
There were, in fact, five lawsuits that became part of Brown v. Board of Education — the De Laine suit, named Briggs v. Elliott, being the first and arguably most important one.
“When people hear Brown v. Board of Education, they usually think of one girl,” said Gona. “Well, there were more than 200 petitioners, and she was probably the last to come on board.”
“To us and the people who were involved in Briggs v. Elliott, there was total disappointment because we felt we were overlooked,” De Laine Jr. said. “We were the first and in many ways the backbone of the entire case.”
The exhibition dispels certain myths surrounding Brown v. Board of Education — perhaps the primary one being that the case was the first legal challenge to racially segregated schools in the United States.
“COURAGE” was created by the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C., where it opened in 2004.
“Before that, I don’t think in our wildest dreams we ever thought such a thing could happen,” Gona said about the exhibition. “We knew our father deserved a bigger place in history than he had received.”
Expertly laid out, the exhibition provides a chronology of events in the South before, during and after the lawsuit was filed. It combines written information on panels, authentic photographs, interactive videos and other creative means to successfully recreate time and place leading to a lawsuit that would help change history.
The case began in 1947 as a request for bus transportation, since many black children lived miles away from inferior and often-dilapidated schools. Some would never make it. The exhibition reflects the long distances some children had to walk to get to school in an ingenious way — the use of a local map. It’s one thing to learn children had to walk nine miles to get to school; it’s another to digest they had to walk the distance between O’Hare Airport and the museum in Skokie.
The Rev. De Laine helped lead the way, gaining petition signatures for the challenge, but there were repercussions. He was fired from his job, and his family home in Clarendon County was burned down twice. There was an environment of intimidation and fear — especially after the White Citizens Council formed.
The Rev. De Laine placed guns above each of the doorways of the family house in South Carolina during that turbulent time.
“Daddy taught us all to protect ourselves,” Gona said. “I’m deathly afraid of guns, but he told us all how to shoot. I had no idea about the danger involved. I had no idea why I had to learn to shoot a gun.”
The case was eventually heard twice — first in 1952 — without resolution before being appealed again to the Supreme Court, where it became part of Brown v. Board of Education.
For the Illinois Holocaust Museum, “COURAGE” is an ideal addition in support of its mission, another example of people standing up for what is right in the face of injustice and cruelty.
“We are proud to tell the powerful story of these brave citizens who together forever changed America,” said Rick Hirschhaut, Executive Director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum. “Because of their willingness to stand up in the face of bigotry, these courageous men and women left a legacy of civil justice and improved educational opportunities for future generations.”
The end section of “Courage” conveys that legacy. The challenge became a precursor to the civil rights movement and the ongoing struggles for rights being waged this very day.
The children of the Rev. De Laine remain passionate about setting straight their father’s role in Brown v. Board of Education and making sure history tells its full story. Gona wrote the book “Dawn of Desegregation: J. A. De Laine and Briggs v. Elliott” in 2011, which provides even more detail about this neglected piece of history.
“People don’t like to admit mistakes,” said De Laine Jr. as to why it’s so difficult to budge inaccurate renderings of the story. “It’s hard to get the whole story out there after there’s been so much misinformation spread. Most people don’t research the research, so history can take on a life of its own.”