Among Moses' Bridge-Builders: Conversations about 'Brown.' ('Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas') (Cover Story)

By Williams, Patricia J. | The Nation, May 23, 1994 | Go to article overview

Among Moses' Bridge-Builders: Conversations about 'Brown.' ('Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas') (Cover Story)


Williams, Patricia J., The Nation


When The Nation asked me to write an essay on the fortieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, I felt as though I were being called to the grandest project of my career. This is the case, after all, that shaped my life's possibilities, the case that, like a stone monument, stands for just about all the racial struggles with which this country still grapples. When The Nation also suggested that a conversation with the Brown family might be the focal point of such an essay, I actually got nervous. The symbolic significance of the case had definitely made them Icons of the Possible in my mind: Oliver Brown, now deceased, whose name is first in a list of many others and whose name, as a result, became the reference for all subsequent generations of discussion; Leola Brown Montgomery, Oliver Brown's widow; Linda Brown Thompson, the little girl (formerly a teacher for Head Start and now program assistant for the Brown Foundation) on whose behalf Oliver Brown sued; the middle daughter, Terry Brown Tyler; and Cheryl Brown Henderson, the youngest daughter and also an educator.

"Don't make icons of us," was just about the first thing out of Cheryl's mouth, when she finally responded to the gushy messages I left on the answering machine at the Brown Foundation, the organization she founded and heads. But . . . but . . . , I said, distinctly crestfallen.

"It was pure accident that the case bears our name," she continued, with no chance for me to argue about it. "It's just a name, it could have been a lot of people's names. It's not our case. Ask us about the Brown Foundation."

The foundation is an organization dedicated to "setting the record straight," as Cheryl Brown Henderson put it. "I'm afraid that a lot of people believe the lawsuit to be something that happened as a very isolated incident, when in fact there were many, many cases that preceded it. We're talking about public school cases that began back in 1849, and, in Kansas, began in 1881." I knew that, of course--"of course" only because teaching the history of civil rights is a big chunk of what I do for a living. I'm even someone who's always complaining that too often the civil rights movement has been too neatly condensed into a few lionized personalities, rather than understood as a historical stream of events. But still--this was different somehow, this was Brown, after all, and here I was in the presence of Legend Incarnate and, well, inquiring minds do want to know. Of course, I didn't quite put it that way. I just asked them to share the sustained insight and privileged perspective that residing inside the edifice of great moments in social history might bring.

"Our family came to Kansas for the railroad in 1923," said Mrs. Leola Brown patiently, apparently quite used to cutting through the exuberant excesses of questions with no borders, never mind answers. "A lot of the early African-American and Hispanic residents of Topeka came for employment purposes The headquarters of the Santa Fe railroad were here. There were decent wages and you could be part of a union and have job security, those sorts of things."

"When did you join the N.A.A.C.P.?" I pressed, longing for detail about what, at odd moments, I caught myself thinking of as "our" story. "Were there any significant events in your life that precipitated your involvement in the case against the school board?"

"We joined for no specific incident. It was in 1948 or '49, something like that. There was nothing specific. It was everything. We were discriminated against in all phases of life. We couldn't go to the restaurants or the shows, or if we did, we had to sit in a certain place, we had to go through a certain door to get there. . . ." she trailed off. "It wasn't only about the schools, you see, it was about all of the things that were against us, all the rejection and neglect, all the things we could not do here."

As Mrs. Leola Brown spoke, describing conditions that affected millions of blacks as well as her family, I understood why her daughters were so insistent on my not making this story into an exceptional one. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Among Moses' Bridge-Builders: Conversations about 'Brown.' ('Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas') (Cover Story)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.