OKLAHOMA CITY – You might think you know the story of Oliver Brown, the black father from Topeka, Kansas who was the lead plaintiff in the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education.
You probably don’t.
Nearly seven decades ago, the welder-turned-preacher’s name was etched in history when the United States Supreme Court canceled unanimously the “separate but equal” doctrine. In Brown v. Board, the judges ruled that state-mandated separate schools were “inherently unequal” and should be abolished.
But much of what is reported about the main plaintiff and his family is false, Cheryl Brown Henderson – the youngest of the late pastor’s three daughters – told February 7 at Oklahoma Christian University.
“When it comes to Brown v. Board, the internet is not your friend,” Henderson said. “We found out online there are all these stories about Brown that don’t even sound like the truth.”
The founding president of the Brown Foundation for Equity, Excellence and Research in Education shared behind-the-scenes details about his family at Oklahoma Christian’s ninth annual History Speaks event.
“One of the (web) sites says Oliver Brown came home from WWII furious to fight for freedom overseas and come back and suffer racial segregation,” Henderson said. to a crowd of several hundred students, faculty and community members.
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She stopped briefly.
“My dad was never in the military,” she continued, drawing laughter from the audience. “He was born with an enlarged heart. He couldn’t serve.
Another site reported that Brown was so furious with separate schools that he flew to New York and met with Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP attorney who would later become the first African-American Supreme Court justice. .
“My dad never met Thurgood Marshall,” Henderson revealed.
Yet another myth: Brown — with a wife and three daughters — was chosen as the lead plaintiff “because of all the litigants, they were the only intact family,” Henderson said.
That’s not true either.
“Everyone was a mom, dad and kids,” Henderson said of the 12 other plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit against Topeka Public Schools.
The role of faith
Coinciding with Black History Month, the History Speaks program annually brings civil rights leaders to Oklahoma Christian, which is associated with the Churches of Christ.
“A lot of times when we think of history, we think of a long time ago, and we think of black and white images,” said Gary Jones, assistant dean of Oklahoma Christian students and director of diversity. “But we don’t realize that these things are only one generation away.”
“A lot of times when we think of history, we think of a long time ago, and we think of black and white images. But we don’t realize that these things are only a generation away.
University president John deSteiguer said it was important to “discuss real world matters that are happening in real time in our society because Jesus said that even though we are not of this world, we are in this world.
“We have to engage. We have to understand. We must be better because God calls us to be better. And we have to do better when it comes to how we treat each other.
Part of that engagement, he said, is hearing “compelling and important” accounts of history from people who have witnessed it — people like Henderson.
As Henderson explained, a common belief is that Brown v. Board was about a little girl: Brown’s 7-year-old daughter, Linda, who couldn’t attend White School near her home but had to walk several blocks to catch a bus. attend a black school.
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The idea is that Oliver Brown was angry that his daughter couldn’t enroll in the nearest school and filed the lawsuit.
In fact, the NAACP recruited Brown to join its lawsuit, Henderson said.
One Sunday morning in the summer of 1950, attorney Charles Scott Sr., Brown’s childhood friend, came to the family’s house after church. At the time, Brown was a welder studying to be a pastor. Henderson’s mother, Leola, was pregnant with her.
“We were a typical 1950s family,” Henderson said. “But maybe we were atypical in that mom was a Baptist and she stayed that way. Dad was a Methodist and he stayed that way.
Leola was taking Henderson’s two older sisters to New Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Oliver would go to St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church alone. But the whole family had returned in time for Scott’s visit that Sunday.
Oliver was a huge fan of Joe Louis – the longtime world heavyweight champion nicknamed the “Brown Bomber” – and dabbled in boxing before entering the ministry.
After Oliver was knocked out the first time, he “had a revelation there on the mat,” his daughter joked.
He turned to theology.
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Leola later became a “Metho-Baptist,” her daughter joked, and joined Oliver’s church when he became pastor of St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Topeka, where he served from 1953 to 1959. From 1959 until a heart attack claimed his life. at age 42 in 1961, he ministered at Benton Avenue AME Church in Springfield, Mo.
On the Sunday of Scott’s visit, the attorney asked Oliver if he would agree to be part of the Topeka lawsuit the NAACP was planning.
Nine mothers of primary-aged children had already agreed to join the effort. Oliver asked if the legal team was recruiting any other fathers. Scott indicated that they were.
Oliver agreed to think about it and his wife helped persuade him, Henderson said.
“I think her faith played a part in her willingness to say yes,” her daughter said in an interview. “From what I understood from my mother, the conversation focused on, ‘You become a pastor and take on a leadership role…and that’s something a faithful person would do.'”
“The principle of the thing”
Before Brown v. Board, Kansas was the battleground for nearly a dozen other school desegregation cases, beginning with Tinnon v. Ottawa in 1881.
Those cases helped pave the way for the landmark trial, Henderson said.
When Brown v. Board was filed, middle and high schools in Topeka were integrated for college education. But extracurricular activities, from football and basketball teams to cheerleading teams, were kept separate.
Topeka’s four black elementary schools were “beautiful brick buildings,” Henderson said, filled with African-American teachers who “had more advanced degrees than their white counterparts because there was no outlet for this master’s or post-master’s work other than this classroom”.
“So it wasn’t the quality. It was not the installation. They weren’t school buses,” she said of the reason for the class action lawsuit. “That was the principle of the thing.”
The other 12 plaintiffs were women, including Darlene Brown, who, in alphabetical order, should have been the lead plaintiff. Contrary to what Scott originally told Oliver Brown, no other fathers were added to the lawsuit, which was filed on February 28, 1951.
“We have to face the reality that my father’s gender is probably what earned him his place in history,” Henderson said.
When the Supreme Court agreed to hear Brown v. Board, the Kansas lawsuit was grouped with four other school desegregation cases – from Delaware, the District of Columbia, South Carolina and Virginia.
In all, there were over 200 complainants. So the decision was not just about a little girl.
Linda Brown, Henderson’s sister who became the face of the lawsuit in part because of a Life magazine article, died aged 75 in 2018.
Henderson’s mother, Leola Brown Montgomery, is still alive. She turned 100 in May 2021 and was able to attend a grand opening three months later for Oliver Brown Elementary School, a public school in Manhattan, Kansas, named after her late husband.
Montgomery told the local newspaper, Mercury, that her late husband would be “thrilled beyond belief” to have a school named after him.
“He would have wondered if he was worth it,” she said.
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While visiting Oklahoma Christian, Henderson noted that Brown v. Board was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
The civil rights icon of Martin Luther King Jr. first marches on washington in the late 1950s were to urge the federal government to follow through on the appeal of the decision for integrated schools.
King had a militant theology, she said, “knowing this, ‘What good is saving souls if you’re going to hate your neighbor?'”
“So I implore all of you in this room,” she told the Christian audience, “when injustice rears its head, the only reaction should be to show up, stand up and speak out.”
This story first appeared in ReligionUnplugged.com.
BOBBY ROSS JR. is editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle. Join it at [email protected]
Filed Under: Black History Month Brown v. Board of Education Cheryl Brown Henderson Features History Speaks Historic Cases National News Oklahoma Oklahoma Christian University Partners People School Desegregation Reverend Oliver Brown Top Stories Topeka Kansas United States Supreme Court