When education reporter Celia Llopis-Jepsen set out to cover the 60th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case for the Topeka-Capital Journal, she wanted to find a new angle. Llopis-Jepsen had only been in Topeka for a year and a half. Brown v. Board, which deemed segregation in public schools across the nation unconstitutional, was of great local significance since the lawsuit was brought against the Board of Education of Topeka.
“This city knows Brown v. Board well and I’m the outsider,” she said. “I didn’t want to cover it in a way that people have already heard; I wanted to do something new.”
This fresh spin came in the form of a series of essays written by members of the Topeka community, each with their own unique story to tell about Brown v. Board.
“It was a way to tell stories and perspectives that people in Topeka, that were well acquainted with the story, might have never heard before.”
Llopis-Jepsen reached out to contacts in the community in search of residents that had a story to tell, including members of the Topeka Unified School District, Washburn University professors and the daughter of plaintiff Oliver Brown.
“The people we found for the essays were in part recommended to me from people who have grown up and lived in this community all their lives,” she said.
|The Topeka Capital-Journal|
She also identified subjects in other ways. After flipping through old photographs from the 1940s, she came across an image of Lupe Perez, one of the last Mexican-American students to attend a segregated school. Llopis-Jepsen contacted Perez, who wrote of her time at Topeka’s Mexican-American school, the Branner Annex.
“I did not know why, when the neighborhood was a mix of white, black and Mexican, we had to go to different schools,” the 80-year-old Topeka resident wrote. “‘Segregation’ — I didn’t know what that word meant.”
Llopis-Jepsen compared the style of these essays to public radio shows such as “This American Life.” She wanted to give residents the ability to have their voice heard. “It would bring some authenticity to let them tell it in their own words.”
In addition to the 17 reflections written by individuals in the community, Llopis-Jepsen also wrote original pieces that explored the history of the case and its implications today.
“One thing that was helpful for me was the Education Writers Association,” she said. “They had an online seminar for reporters on how to cover Brown v. Board.”
Llopis-Jepsen also worked closely with historians at the Brown v. Board museum, in addition to analyzing national and federal data and reports from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.
The series uncovers the persistent educational achievement gap among minorities. The four-year college completion rate for adults over 25 is 34.5 percent for whites, 14.5 percent for Hispanics, 21.4 percent for blacks, and 16.7 percent for American Indians and Alaska Natives according to 2012 data from the U.S. Department of Education.
Llopis-Jepsen suggests a need for not only more media coverage on the achievement gap, but looking past graduation rates.
“We need to be digging down deeper and understanding where it comes from,” she said. “I want to do it a lot more, I feel like I just scratched the surface.”
- Visit the series
- Check out the Education Writers Association's resources on covering Brown v. Board
- Visit the Brown v. Board National Historic Site