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. …