Equity & Diversity

Daughter of Brown v. Board Plaintiff Talks Leadership, Topeka, Segregation

By Lesli A. Maxwell — July 20, 2016 2 min read
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There are few people with ties as deep to the nation’s battle for integrated public schools as Cheryl Brown Henderson.

Born and raised in Topeka, Kan., she is the youngest daughter of Oliver L. Brown, the named plaintiff in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning racial segregation in public schools in 1954.

By the time Henderson was old enough to start her schooling, Topeka’s schools had been desegregated. But she grew up hearing about the experience of her two older sisters and parents who had attended segregated schools in the city. While her parents were committed to fighting for black children to have the same educational opportunities as white children, one of the consequences of school desegregation that made her schooling profoundly different than that of her older family members were the teachers who staffed the classrooms.

“I’m one of those people, kindergarten through graduate school, who never had a teacher of color,” she said.

A former educator whose teaching career began in Topeka, Henderson founded the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research and serves as its president. She and the foundation remain deeply connected to the causes of equitable and quality schooling, civic engagement, and educating the public on the significance and impact of Brown v. Board and its ongoing relevance to public education and civil rights.

Now, Henderson sees a direct link between her family’s fight for desegregation and equal opportunity and the new superintendent at the helm of Topeka’s public schools.

On July 1, Tiffany Anderson, an African-American woman, became the district’s superintendent. For two years and counting, Education Week has closely tracked Anderson, whose leadership of the Jennings, Mo., school district near St. Louis brought her recognition as a 2015 Leader To Learn From. And expectations for Anderson’s performance in Topeka are already very high, as captured in this recent editorial from the Topeka Capital-Journal.

Education Week reached out to Henderson recently to talk about her family’s roots in Topeka, the ongoing impact of the Brown decision, and what it means that the Topeka district—so closely linked to the nation’s struggle to educate children of all races and backgrounds in the same schools—have a black woman at its helm for the first time.

Take a look and listen at what she has to say.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.