TOPEKA, Kan. – The achievements of 13 plaintiffs and their 20 children, representing just one court case of five launched nationwide, is immortalized in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ended “separate but equal” schooling for African Americans.
But that case’s namesake, Oliver Brown, hardly lived long enough to see the effects of his activism.
“He was a person who believed in the right thing for everybody,” his widow, Leola Brown Montgomery, now 93, said, days before the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision. “Whenever he had a chance, he would take the opportunity to try to encourage the people, and our people especially.”
Oliver Brown, a reverend who worked weekdays for the Santa Fe Railroad, died in 1961, just weeks after his eldest daughter, Linda, graduated from high school. A decade earlier, Brown tried to enroll Linda, then a third-grader, in the all-white public elementary school nearest their home. He detailed her long walk over railroad tracks to the bus stop in testimony presented to the court.
“I really think that dad would have been an activist in the civil rights movement,” Linda Brown Thompson said. The last decade of her father’s life saw the Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott achieve an end to the segregation of public transit, and the Little Rock Nine enroll at Central High School. But the tumultuous 1960s, and the landmark Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, laid in wait.
“I’m sure he would have been on the front lines had he still been here,” Linda Brown Thompson said, recalling a petition her dad launched to integrate movie theaters after the family moved to Springfield.
With her round cheeks and polished winter coat, Brown Thompson became the face of the Brown v. Board case. Six decades later, she remembers the stinging cold of her long walk to the bus stop, far past the neighborhood’s elementary school for white children, and the embarrassment and bewilderment she felt separating from her neighborhood friends.
“I remember a couple of times turning around and going back home because I—you know, it was a small town,” Brown Thompson said. “I got really, really cold and would get home and be crying. And mother would, you know, she would try to warm me up and tell me it would be all right and everything.”
Her mother says it was “devastating.”
“When the kids asked her why she couldn’t go [to school with them], they came and asked me. Miss Brown, what’s all of this? Why can’t they let her go to school with us?” Leola Brown Montgomery said.
“And I tried to explain to them it was the color of her skin, that black people could not go to school with them over there, yet they could go,” she added. “The Mexicans could go. The Indians could go and the whites all went together. But the blacks could not go. So I tried to explain that, because those very same children who came over to play with her, they ate my food, they slept in my bed with my kids and they played with them and they didn’t see any difference. But then when school started, that’s where the difference came in.”
Brown Thompson and her younger sister, Cheryl Brown Henderson, recalled fearing that the African-American teachers at the segregated elementary school would lose their jobs after the Supreme Court decision was handed down. While many were laid off, the Brown family said little retribution came their way, thanks in part to Kansas’ tempered political climate relative to the rest of the nation.
“I think the luxury we had in Kansas, as opposed to the Southern states that were companions to ‘Brown,’ was that Kansas already had a certain amount of integration and that Kansas had been one of those places after the Civil War that sent emissaries into the South to recruit African-Americans into the state,” Henderson said. “So there were already, you know, varying levels of that then, integration, even though, you know, there were still situations where you couldn’t try on clothing or you had to take your food, you know, out in a bag. You couldn’t eat it at the counter at the dime stores, as we used to call them. So we had various levels. It wasn’t absolute.”
Kansas’ position as a border state – neither north nor south, and therefore apart from the politicization of racial politics – may be why Brown became the named case of the five launched by the NAACP in Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Of the 13 plaintiffs in the Kansas lawsuit, Oliver Brown was not the first alphabetically: That distinction belongs to Darlene Brown. And chronologically, he was the 10th to sign on. But Oliver was the only male plaintiff, and his unionized railroad work afforded job protection.
Lena Carper was one of the dozen women recruited by the NAACP to try to enroll her young daughter in the neighborhood’s white school. At age 10, Katherine Carper, now Sawyer, became the only child to testify in the Kansas District Court case, and her testimony was submitted to the Supreme Court.
“I thought it was the world’s biggest room,” Katherine Sawyer said. “I didn’t really, at that age, understand the full implication of what I was testifying for.”
The judges asked Sawyer to detail her bus ride to school, where kids often sat four to a bench and more crowded the aisles.
“I think the reason why I was the one who testified – this is me now in hindsight – is [because] I lived outside the city limits, and so when I got on the bus, it was probably the longest route from where I caught to bus to get over to Buchanan School.”
Sawyer said she walked the five blocks from her house to the bus stop across unpaved roads. Her mother, a plaintiff in the case, would wait outside for the bus and call the kids when it came.
“There were so many plaintiffs that were involved,” Katherine Sawyer’s son, Brian Sawyer, said. “I think it’s a shame that my grandmother [is] not around to tell her story anymore. Her voice is now silent, and so I’ve really taken it this year, the opportunity to make sure that my mother – who doesn’t like to be out in the public – but I want to make sure that her story never dies.”
Katherine Sawyer said her dream is that “every little boy and girl going to school would be able to look around the classroom and see the United Nations in that classroom, every color, every nationality, and to learn from each other and learn to love each other.”
“Just because someone’s different than you, that’s a good opportunity to just learn what they may know [and] learn each other’s cultures and get comfortable with it,” Katherine Sawyer said. “I think we’re more alike than not alike and we need to learn that.”