Linda C. Brown, Key Figure in Historic U.S. Desegregation Case, Dies at 75

By Mark Walsh — March 26, 2018 5 min read
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Linda C. Brown, whose name is etched in history as part of the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that declared racial segregation of the schools unconstitutional, has died at age 75.

Brown’s youngest sister, Cheryl Brown Henderson, the founding president of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence, and Research, confirmed the death Monday and said the family would have no further comment, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.

Linda Brown walked about a mile each day in Topeka, Kan., crossing train tracks and bypassing the neighborhood white school, just to catch a bus the rest of the way to attend the all-black Monroe School, about two miles from her home.

Her father, Oliver L. Brown, a railroad worker and minister, became the lead plaintiff among other African-Americans in Topeka in a lawsuit challenging “separate but equal” education in Kansas.

That case was consolidated with others from Delaware, the District of Columbia, South Carolina, and Virginia before the U.S. Supreme Court, for argument in 1952, and under new Chief Justice Earl Warren, again in 1953, leading to the unanimous May 17, 1954, decision in Brown that declared racial segregation in schools to be a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause. (The District of Columbia case was decided under a companion ruling, Bolling v. Sharpe, that was based on the Fifth Amendment’s due-process clause.)

“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” Warren wrote for the court. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Warren prominently quoted a finding of the federal district court in Kansas, which had ruled that it was bound at the time by the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that had upheld separate facilities for black train passengers but nonetheless issued a finding of fact that “segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children.”

“A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn,” the Kansas court had declared in the case brought by Oliver Brown on behalf of his daughter Linda. “Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.”

In what many scholars consider to be the authoritative book on the Brown cases, Simple Justice, author Richard Kluger writes that Oliver Brown took Linda one morning in 1950, when she was 7 years old and about to enter 3rd grade, on a walk several blocks to the Sumner School, an all-white school.

Linda Brown had recounted to Kluger for the 1975 book that a school registration notice had been stuck on every door in the neighborhood in that summer of 1950, including the Browns. He sought to enroll Linda in the white school.

“As they climbed the front steps, there was tension in Oliver Brown that his daughter could detect, even at her age,” Kluger wrote. “They were directed to the principal’s office, and Linda waited outside the door for a few minutes while her father went in. He was upset when he came out, to judge by his tone of voice, and ‘quite upset’ when he got home.”

With his daughter denied admission to Sumner School, Oliver Brown got in touch with the Topeka chapter of the NAACP, which had been gathering potential plaintiffs to challenge the segregation policy, just as the other challenges were forming elsewhere.

On the witness stand in federal district court in Topeka, Kluger writes, “Oliver Brown pulled himself together and got his story out. Linda had to leave home at 7:40 a.m. to get to school by nine,” sometimes unable to reach a school bus stop where she still faced a lengthy ride.

Linda Brown herself did not testify in the Kansas trial. The Topeka school board actually ended its segregation policy for its junior and senior high schools in 1953, before the Supreme Court decision.

In 1979, Linda Brown, with her own children enrolled in Topeka’s public schools, joined other plaintiffs in an effort to reopen the historic desegregation case. That case went on for years as a federal appeals court called for further remedies to address lingering racial imbalances in student enrollment. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to disturb the appeals court’s decision in 1993.

In 2004, on the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, President George W. Bush dedicated the reopening of the Monroe School as the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. The Brown Foundation had spearheaded the effort to preserve the building and secure the funding to turn the building into a museum about the Brown cases and the civil rights era.

“Fifty years ago today, nine judges announced that they had looked at the Constitution and saw no justification for the segregation and humiliation of an entire race,” the president said on that day in Topeka. “Here at the corner of 15th and Monroe, and at schools like it across America, that was a day of justice—and it was a long time coming.”

A few weeks earlier, on April 29, 2004, Linda Brown addressed the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, recalling the day of the Supreme Court’s decision.

“At 12:52 [p.m.] the announcement came,” Brown said. “The court’s decision on ending segregation was unanimous. My mother was overwhelmed. On returning from school, I learned of the decision, which at that time only meant to me that my sisters wouldn’t have to walk so far to school the next fall. That evening in our home was much rejoicing. I remember seeing tears of joy in the eyes of my father as he embraced us, repeating ‘Thanks be to God.’”

She recalled that integration of the elementary schools in Topeka went relatively smoothly.

“Neither I nor my family suffered the abuse or racial strife that marked integration in the latter ‘50s and early ‘60s in so many many parts of the country,” she said. Of course, it would take many years for the promise of the Brown decision to be fulfilled, and many observers worry today about resegregation of American schools.

Oliver Brown died in 1961 at age 42. Linda Brown said in the Chautauqua talk that she then inherited much of the attention surrounding the case.

The Brown case “might have been a little flame,” she said. “But it served to set off a mighty flame.”

Photo: Linda C. Brown, 9, is shown in this 1952 photo. Smith was a 3rd grader when her father joined with other plaintiffs in a class-action suit in 1951 in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., which led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision against school segregation. AP-File

This story has been corrected to show that Linda Brown was 75.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.