Cheryl Brown Henderson was just a little girl — not even in kindergarten yet — when her family name became enshrined in American history.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that struck down the concept of “separate but equal” and declared segregation of the races in public education unconstitutional.
The first-named plaintiff in the case (actually five cases combined from four states and the District of Columbia) was Oliver Brown, a railroad company welder and assistant pastor. The case that would change American education and help launch the civil rights movement of the 1960s would forever be known as Brown v. Board of Education.
Henderson, one of Oliver Brown’s three daughters, will speak in Tacoma next week. She still lives in Topeka, Kan., where the original class action lawsuit was filed. She’s been a teacher, an educational administrator and a consultant.
Today, she travels the country telling the story of the court decision and speaking on behalf of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research.
Henderson, 63, will be at the University of Washington Tacoma on Jan. 20 for the university’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity Breakfast.
Here, she answers some questions about the landmark court case that bears her family’s name.
Q: How old were you when the famous Supreme Court decision was made?
A: I was 3 in 1954.
Q: Talk about your father’s involvement in the lawsuit.
A: The Topeka NAACP decided to organize a class action in the city. Their attorney, Charles Scott, was a childhood friend of his. He asked my dad if he would participate. That’s how we got involved.
Q: Was your dad the sole plaintiff?
A: The NAACP recruited families (as plaintiffs). By the time they came to our home, they already had nine. My dad was the 10th person. They ended up with 13 families.
Q: What happened next?
A: The parents who signed on were told to locate the closest segregated school for whites only, try to enroll their child, and report back what their experiences were. In our family, my older sister Linda was the school-age child (who her father tried to enroll).
Q: How did your father’s name end up being listed first on the lawsuit?
A: He was the only father. (All the other named plaintiffs were women, including a woman named Darlene Brown, who was not related to Oliver Brown). Someone decided to put him first. It wasn’t the NAACP. It could have been a clerk.
Q: Did he testify in the case?
A: My dad testified. There was only one child who testified, a handful of parents and expert witnesses.
Q: What were the schools in Topeka like when the lawsuit was filed?
A: Every state had its own laws on the books. In Kansas, school segregation was permitted, but the state did not require it. In Topeka, the junior high schools and high schools were already integrated. (Only the elementary schools were segregated.)
Q: Talk a bit about the Brown Foundation and the National Historic Site.
A: You can visit the foundation website at brownvboard.org. It was founded by myself and others in the city to preserve the legacy of the decision. Its purpose is to educate people about that history as well as about other underrepresented groups in U.S. history. The historic site is in one of the old African-American schools, Monroe School in Topeka. Its exhibits commemorate the history of Brown.
Q: When you were growing up, did your family talk often about your place in history?
A: My family did not launch the modern civil rights movement. The NAACP did. You need people to stand with you. The NAACP was active around issues of discrimination in housing, employment.
Q: What are the challenges you see in American education today?
A: The challenge is an economic one. Policymakers must come up with a way so that the pool of resources we use for public education can be equal across the board.
Martin Luther King Day celebrations in Pierce County
Bates Technical College will celebrate the King holiday with two events:
• 11:30 a.m. - 1 p.m. Friday
Bates campus auditorium in downtown Tacoma, 1101 S. Yakima Ave.
A celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. featuring a reflection on his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland will provide opening remarks and University of Puget Sound professor Dexter Gordon will deliver a keynote address encouraging listeners to reflect on the future of civil rights in America and beyond. Musical guest Jerusalem’s Gate will also perform.
• A March for MLK
Community members can meet at 8 a.m. for refreshments at the college’s downtown campus cafeteria, at 11th Street and Yakima Avenue. They will march to the city of Tacoma celebration at the convention center. A shuttle will return marchers to the downtown campus following the end of the city celebration at 1 p.m.
More information: Call 253-680-7113
“The Dream Begins: 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act”
10 a.m.- noon Saturday
Clover Park Technical College, McGavick Conference Center, 4500 Steilacoom Blvd. S.W., Lakewood
Admission is free.
Keynote speaker: University of Puget Sound professor Nancy Bristow.
Featured performers include the Total Experience Gospel Choir and others. In addition, the Clover Park School District student who won the Lakewood Arts Commission Essay Contest will read his or her entry.
Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast
8-10:30 a.m. Jan. 20 (doors open 7:30 a.m.)
University of Washington Tacoma, William W. Philip Hall
Keynote speaker: Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of the lead plaintiff in landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. She’ll speak on “Freedom to Learn: 60 Years after Brown v. Board of Education.”
Advance tickets: $15 for general admission, $10 for UWT students and $5 for children ages 10 and younger. All tickets are $20 at the door, space permitting.
More info: firstname.lastname@example.org; 253- 692-4501
City of Tacoma Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration
11 a.m. - 1 p.m. Jan. 20 (doors open 10 a.m.)
Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center, 1500 Broadway
Admission is free, and free parking is available on a first-come, first-serve basis at the convention center, at Pacific Plaza Garage (1125 Commerce St.) and at Park Plaza North (923 Commerce St.).
On-street parking is also free for the holiday.
Attendees are encouraged to bring donations for the Allen A.M.E. Church food drive.
The theme of this year’s 26th annual celebration, which is expected to draw between 2,000 and 3,000 people, is Youth Continuing the Legacy.
Keynote speaker: Eric Boles, a Tacoma resident and former NFL player, currently president of training and consulting firm The Gamechangers.
Also: The South Sound MLK Mass Choir, Bob Williams of Living Voices, Tacoma poet laureate Lucas Smiraldo, Pacific Lutheran University’s step team and Lincoln High School’s drumline.
The celebration will also be broadcast on TV Tacoma.
“Victory is in the Struggle,” a talk by Chicano civil rights pioneer Carlos Munoz
6:30 p.m. Jan. 21 University of Puget Sound, Schneebeck Concert Hall
Munoz, professor emeritus in the department of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, was the founding chair of the first Chicano studies department at California State University, Los Angeles in 1968. His book, “Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement,” talks about the origins of the movement. He was an adviser to the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign, an anti-war advocate and a member of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@ thenewstribune.com @DebbieCafazzo