Cheryl Brown Henderson made a mark in history at an early age.
She was not quite 4 years old when she and her two sisters were named in a lawsuit that would change the United States forever. They were among the plaintiffs in Brown v. the Board of Education in Topeka, Kan., a suit that the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1954.
Brown Henderson, 63, said she was too young at the time to realize the impact. She understands it now, though.
The decision dismantled the framework that local and state governments used to justify discrimination, she said during a telephone interview from her home in Topeka.
On Tuesday, Brown Henderson will be in Fort Wayne to give the inaugural Distinguished Lecturer Series address at the Indiana Tech Law School where she’ll reflect on the historic lawsuit.
That’s a very famous case, said Peter Alexander, dean of the Indiana Tech Law School. I think every lawyer has studied the case, he said, adding the same is probably true for anyone interested in U.S. history.
The high court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education is considered a landmark ruling that helped usher in the beginning of the civil rights movement. The ruling overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 that allowed state-sponsored segregation in public schools. Before the decision, some public schools in many states had separate schools for white and black youngsters, contending that as long as the schools were separate, but equal, students were getting the education mandated by law.
The suit was filed in 1951 by Oliver L. Brown, a welder with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and assistant pastor at St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church in Topeka. His three daughters and other neighborhood children were bused to segregated schools, rather than being enrolled in closer, all-white schools. He died in 1961 at the age of 42 without realizing the impact of his historic lawsuit.
Handed down in May 1954, the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education case stated separate educational facilities are inherently unequal, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling paved the way for integration and was a major victory in the civil rights movement.
Change sometimes comes slowly, though.
There weren’t any changes immediately, Brown Henderson said, pointing out that children of color continued going to the same schools for several years. Gradually, the change came, and increasingly children of all races were attending classes together.
It wasn’t until Brown Henderson got into college that she started to realize the significance of the decision.
Professors started talking about it, she said, and I started to realize it was an important ruling.
Brown Henderson was a teacher for four years before becoming an administrator and then going into business, civic affairs and public advocacy. In honor of her deceased father, she helped found The Brown Foundation for Educational Equity. Among other things, the foundation worked with the U.S. Congress to establish the Brown v. Board of Education National Park in Topeka that opened in May 2004, the 50th anniversary of the famous Supreme Court decision. Brown Henderson also tried her hand at politics, running unsuccessfully as a Republican for the Kansas House and the state’s 2nd Congressional District.
The interest in politics has waned.
I don’t intend to run again, Brown Henderson said. Politics are more contentious now, she said, and it’s difficult to get anything done. While she respects the GOP and some of its leaders, she considers herself an independent.
Since her history-making days, Brown has been founding president of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, and owner of Brown & Associates, educational consulting firm. She was an associate with The Westerly Group, a public advocacy firm formerly in Washington, D.C.
Brown Henderson remains a teacher at heart.
I’m still trying to educate people, she said, but in different ways – including speaking on college campuses, appearing on television and talking to the media about the historic case.
She and her sisters have given lectures to numerous college organizations, national organizations and community groups.
Education is crucial for all children, Brown Henderson said.
There’s still ambivalence about the need for a good education for all children, she said.
The basic educational needs are the same; people still have to know how to read, write and think. But there are more demands today, such as the demand for computer skills, she said, and the skill sets are more rigorous and demanding.
Brown Henderson remains optimistic about the nation’s education system and teachers.
Most youngsters are succeeding academically, and most teachers are dedicated, she said. The country, however, can benefit from more partnerships between business and educators, so youth can learn the skills needed in the workplace.
Brown Henderson is a staunch supporter of Head Start, the preschool program started in the 1960s as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. It helps children get an early start on learning, she said.
That said, Brown Henderson insists there is the need to better fund schools to ensure a quality education for all children.
Among the changes she advocates is pooling financial resources so schools in poorer areas have more money to invest in children.
Brown Henderson’s appearance at the Indiana Tech Law School comes at an appropriate time, said Dean Alexander.
Our law students will have studied Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education the week before Brown Henderson appears on campus, he said. She gives our students a unique opportunity to meet one of the people who helped integrate public schools and change the United States.
Her address is open to the public without charge, the dean said, and we have invited high school and college students (and their teachers and professors).
Among those to accept the invitation is Neil Day, a teacher at Northrop High School who plans to accompany 52 students to Brown Henderson’s address.
My students (who also get college credits through Trine University) in the dual-credit U.S. History class have shown a passion for history all year long, he said, adding that having a civil rights icon come to Fort Wayne is very exciting.
While Day’s students, and most of their parents, weren’t alive when the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case was decided, their grandparents were. To them it’s history, he continued, but history that has relevance today.
My son and several of his friends have shown a passion for history all year long, he said.
Day said speakers whose stories are well known are exciting to hear when they address the memorable moments of their lives.
They bring history to life in a way words on paper can’t, he said.