Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Long before Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka became part of the national legal landscape, African American parents were initiating court cases to challenge segregated public schools. The first documented school case took place before the Civil War. In 1849, in the case of Roberts v. The City of Boston, the Massachusetts courts denied Benjamin Roberts and other African American parents the right to enroll their children in certain Boston public schools. More than thirty years later, African American parents in Kansas took up the cause of gaining equal access to public schools. The free-state heritage, geographical location, and composition of its population positioned Kansas to play a central role in the major questions of educational freedom and equality. In 1868 state law allowed but did not require separate schools. Some schools admitted children without discrimination, and one of the first state superintendents of public instruction, Peter McVicar, vocally opposed segregated schools.

The arrival of the "Exodusters" from the South in the 1870s, however, hardened attitudes toward segregated schools in Kansas. Migration increased the African American population from 627 in 1860 to more than 43,000 by 1880. Because of community sentiment, some schools began to separate children by race. In 1879 the Kansas legislature passed a statute specifically allowing first-class cities (those with populations of 15,000 or more) to operate separate primary schools. This law remained in effect into the 1950s. With the exception of those in Wyandotte County, secondary schools were not segregated in Kansas. For a span of nearly seventy years, from 1881 to 1949, the Kansas Supreme Court became the venue for the constitutional question of public schools and segregation.

During that period the following cases were organized by African American parents across Kansas: Elijah Tinnon v. The Board of Education of Ottawa (1881); Knox v. The Board of Education of Independence (1891); Reynolds v. The Board of Education of Topeka (1903); Cartwright v. The Board of Education of Coffeyville (1906); Rowles v. The Board of Education of Wichita (1907); Williams v. The Board of Education of Parsons (1908); Woolridge v. The Board of Education of Galena (1916); Thurman-Watts v. The Board of Education of Coffeyville (1924); Wright v. The Board of Education of Topeka (1929); Graham v. The Board of Education of Topeka (1941); and Webb v. School District No. 90, South Park, Johnson County (1949). Individuals or small groups of parents appear to have acted on their own in the earliest cases. In later cases state and national strategies of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were clearly at work.

In response to numerous unsuccessful attempts to ensure access to equal opportunities for all children, African American community leaders and organizations stepped up their efforts to change public education. In the fall of 1950 members of the Topeka chapter of the NAACP agreed to challenge again the separate but equal doctrine applied to public education as a result of the 1896 United States Supreme Court ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. Chapter president McKinley Burnett, secretary Lucinda Todd, and attorneys Charles Scott, John Scott, and Charles Bledsoe developed the strategy for this challenge.

The three young attorneys for the Topeka NAACP were graduates of Washburn University and Washburn Law School in Topeka. Lucinda Todd had taught in one of the segregated African American schools but had resigned in keeping with the policy that did not permit married women to teach school. McKinley Burnett was a longtime community activist for the rights of African American people.

From 1948 to 1950 Burnett went before the Topeka School Board to persuade it to end the practice of segregated elementary schools since Kansas law permitted but did not require segregated public schools. The decision to challenge segregation in the courts was a measure of last resort for the NAACP.

The team of Burnett, Todd, Bledsoe, and the Scotts devised a plan that involved enlisting the support of fellow NAACP members and personal friends as plaintiffs in what would be a class action suit filed against the Board of Education of Topeka Public Schools. Lucinda Todd was the first to volunteer on behalf of her seven-year-old daughter. She was eventually joined by a group of twelve parents who agreed to participate on behalf of their children (nineteen children in all). Individuals in the Topeka case moved ahead, unaware that at the same time legal counsel for the NAACP headquarters in New York was representing plaintiffs in school cases from Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina, and Washington DC.

Children of the Topeka plaintiffs had to travel past and away from nearby schools to attend the four schools designated for African Americans. Topeka operated eighteen schools for white children and only four for African American children. In the fall of 1950 the thirteen parents were instructed by the NAACP to locate the white school closest to their home, take their child or children there along with a witness, and attempt enrollment. The parents were denied the right to enroll their children in these schools, a result that provided the attorneys with documentation to file suit. The NAACP case was filed in federal district court in February 1951. At that point, Oliver Brown, the only male among the roster of parents, was designated as lead plaintiff. With that designation, the case became known by his name. In addition to Brown the plaintiff roster included Darlene Brown (no relation to Oliver), Lena Carper, Sadie Emmanuel, Marguerite Emmerson, Shirla Fleming, Zelma Henderson, Shirley Hodison, Maude Lawton, Alma Lewis, Iona Richardson, Vivian Scales, and Lucinda Todd.

Even though their case met with defeat, the testimony of expert witnesses firmly established that while educators in African American schools held more advanced degrees than their white counterparts, the school buildings for African American and white children in Topeka were substantially unequal. These findings set the stage for a challenge to segregation per se. Under the leadership of Presiding Judge Walter Huxman, who had once served as governor of Kansas, the federal district court ruled in favor of the Topeka Board of Education. Attorneys for the NAACP immediately filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

When the Kansas case reached the Supreme Court it was combined with the other NAACP cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington DC. The combined cases became known by the Kansas case: Oliver L. Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka. These cases were supported by the NAACP and its executive secretary, Walter White, and were litigated by the daunting legal team of Charles Bledsoe, Harold Boulware, Robert Carter, William T. Coleman, Jack Greenberg, Williams H. Hastie, George E. C. Hayes, Oliver Hill, Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, James M. Nabrit Jr., Louis Redding, Frank Reeves, Spotswood Robinson, Charles S. Scott, John Scott, U. Simpson Tate, and Franklin Williams.

On May 17, 1954, at 12:52 P.M., the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision. The Court's verdict was based on arguments presented in the lower courts by social scientists Louisa Holt and Kenneth Clark. As a consequence the Court declared that the separation of children in public schools for no other reason than race was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore unconstitutional. In December 1955 the Court directed the country to implement its decision "with all deliberate speed." The Court's edict of 1955 became known as Brown II.

To this day, efforts continue in Kansas and across the country to realize the dream of the NAACP. In 1979 a group of attorneys was concerned that a Topeka Public Schools policy allowing open enrollment would lead to resegregation. The attorneys believed that with this type of choice white parents would shift their children to other schools, creating predominantly African American and predominantly white schools, and they petitioned the federal district court to reopen the original Brown case to determine if Topeka Public Schools had in fact ever complied with the Court's ruling of 1954. Their case became known as Brown III. The attorneys were Richard Jones, Joseph Johnson, and Charles Scott Jr. (son of one of the attorneys in the original Brown case) in association with Chris Hansen from the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. In the late 1980s Topeka Public Schools were found to be in noncompliance. On October 28, 1992, after several appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Topeka Public Schools' petition to once again hear the Brown case.

In the absence of another appeal, the Topeka Board of Education was directed by federal district court to develop plans for compliance. In response, three magnet schools were constructed to replace older buildings and expand neighborhood boundaries. These schools are excellent facilities and make every effort to be racially balanced. In recognition of the legacy of the 1954 decision, one of these new schools was named for the Scott family attorneys. Another was named for one of the city's leading African American teachers, the late Mamie Williams.

In 1988, in order to create a living tribute to the attorneys and plaintiffs in the original Brown case, the family of the late Oliver L. Brown and other community members in Topeka established the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence, and Research. In 1990 the Brown Foundation sought to create a permanent place for the interpretation and commemoration of the landmark Supreme Court decision. On October 26, 1992, after two years of work by the Brown Foundation, President George H. W. Bush signed the Brown v. The Board of Education National Historic Site Act to commemorate the landmark Supreme Court Decision.

See also AFRICAN AMERICANS: Civil Rights; Exodusters; Scott Family / CITIES AND TOWNS: Topeka, Kansas.

Cheryl Brown Henderson Brown Foundation

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