More than 60 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the combination of massive resistance and growing residential segregation has rolled back the decision’s achievements. But did integration work? And as the nation marches back into segregated housing, education, and communities, the return of Jim Crow laws – or separate, but equal, accommodations artists around the District are examining if separate can ever be equal.

The gallery exhibit Is Separate Ever Equal? at the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, I Street Galleries, examines the impact of segregation on education.
The gallery exhibit Is Separate Ever Equal? at the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, I Street Galleries, examines the impact of segregation on education. (Photo by Shantella Y. Sherman)

The HedRush Agency, in conjunction with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities on March 24 launched the gallery exhibit “Is Separate Ever Equal?” to explore themes of inherent bias, racial inequity, and the impact of isolation on society.

Documentary filmmaker, Malkia K. Lydia, one of the artists featured in the exhibit, shines a spotlight on her mother, Nancy V. Sims, who helped integrate D.C.’s Barnard Elementary School in 1955, and whose image, lined up with her class preparing to take class pictures, has appeared across the country, including the National Civil Rights Museum. After the initial integration of the Barnard, what happened?

“Picture Day shares aspects of my mom’s journey through our midcentury D.C. school system. I don’t think about her experiences in terms of “separate but equal” or desegregation, because racism, classism and bad child development ideas were rampant before and after 1954,” Lydia told the AFRO. “Her school career spanned segregation and desegregation and in my opinion, with a few exceptions, she got the short end of the stick throughout.”

Lydia said that her mother never kept the struggles she faced in school from her children or that the holes in her education impacted her adult life.

“She was emphatic that my sisters and I would not be blocked by the same obstacles. My parents didn’t just affirm us or preach to us about good grades, they helped build progressive Blackled learning environments for us, they explained the bigger picture behind what we experienced in the publicschool system, and they worked toward structural change in society overall,” Lydia said.

In 2014, as an expansion of his commemorative exhibition presented at the National Education Association “RA,” Brent “Munch” Joseph initiated an exhibition proposal centered on the 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education. Five separate cases representing five jurisdictions across the nation were consolidated under one, each calling for gross societal inequities to be resolved. One of those cases, Bolling v. Sharpe, was initiated in Anacostia, where parents wanted equal opportunity to enroll their students in the newly built John Phillip Sousa Junior High School. This case questioned the doctrine of separate but equal grounded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

“There are deep, tangled roots to our unfortunate devaluation of Black spaces. How silly is it that when we see all Black segregation era schools that were under-resourced and insufficient, we associate their shortcomings with the racial make-up of the school, as opposed to centuries of racist educational, economic, and social sabotage? We still do it today,” Lydia told the AFRO.

Artist Nabeeh Bilal said that while things have definitely improved in many instances from the era of de facto Jim Crow, the slow return to segregated spaces should alarm the nation.

“Large segments of the nation have returned to the idea that being separate from others is better and it impacts culturally, how we function as a nation,” Bilal told the AFRO. “We are better and stronger together.”