Wednesday 10 February 2016

Brown vs Board of Education

And I remember going inside and my dad spoke with someone and then he went into the inner office with the principal, and they left me out to sit outside with the secretary. And while he was in the inner office, I could hear voices and hear his voice raised as the conversation went on. And then he immediately came out of the office, took me by the hand, and we walked home from the school, and I just couldn't understand what was happening, you know, because I was so sure that I was going to get to go to school with Mona, Guinevere, Wanda, and all of my playmates.

*This is a quote from Linda (Brown) Thompson, daughter of Oliver Brown, plaintiff in the case Brown vs. Board of Education, taken from 2004 PBS Documentary.

Linda Brown grew up in Topeka, Kansas in the 1950's.  Although she was black, she lived in an integrated neighbourhood where she had many white friends.  The neighbourhood school Sumner Elementary, however, was segregated.  Eight-year-old Linda watched her friends Mona, Guinevere and Wanda walk the seven blocks to the white school while she walked six blocks in the other direction and then hailed a bus to the black school one mile away.

Black families in the neighbourhood joined forces and with sponsorship from the NAACP, they filed a lawsuit called Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.  The lawsuit tried to undo the case of Plessy vs.Ferguson of 1896 which stated that all schools must be "separate but equal".  As long as the black schools were equal to the white schools, the lawsuit claimed this practice to be consititutional.

Although Brown was the plaintiff, the lawsuit included 12 other parents and was filed on behalf of their 20 children.  Oliver Brown, a lifelong resident of Topeka, was a welder in the shops of the Santa Fe Railroad.  He was also an assistant pastor at his church; perhaps his leadership in the church made him a good candidate to lead the lawsuit.  According to Oliver's youngest daughter, Cheryl, the black school buildings in Topeka, Kansas were equal to the white school buildings (unlike many of the schools in the Deep South).  The black teachers were well educated.  However, for the Brown's, it was the principle of the matter.

The lawsuit was filed in the district court of Kansas on February 28, 1951, but the plaintiffs lost.  However, Oliver Brown took the case to the Supreme Court and on May 17, 1954, Justice Earl Warren and his court ruled 9-1 in favour of the plaintiff.  Segregated schools were declared unconstitutional in the United States.

Linda Brown was able to join her friends Mona, Guinevere and Wanda at Sumner Elementary thanks to the courage of her father, Oliver, and the 12 other parents.

Photo of newly integrated classroom courtesy

*First published in 2012.

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