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Archive for Saturday, April 30, 1994

A LIFETIME OF HARD LESSONS

April 30, 1994

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A daughter of a Topeka man who stood against racial segregation recounts her educational experiences.

Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of the namesake in a landmark school segregation case, learned hard lessons not found in her textbooks.

She started kindergarten in 1955, a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional.

Oliver Brown was among 13 parents who filed the lawsuit. He did so on behalf of a daughter, Linda, because the district prohibited her from going to an all-white school closer to their home.

"I believe our (post-Brown) experience was unique, but perhaps not better," Henderson said Friday at a Kansas University symposium that brought together academics, plaintiffs and lawyers to assess the Brown decision.

Henderson is now president of the Brown Foundation of Topeka.

The court's ruling, handed down May 17, 1954, changed education in the United States forever. Yet, Henderson discovered, some Americans didn't welcome change.

As a 13-year-old junior high student in Topeka during the 1960s, Henderson grew fond of a young teacher. She even made him cookies.

"I liked this guy," said Henderson, who was among the six blacks enrolled in the 300-student school.

During American Education Week, parents visiting the classroom were escorted by the teacher to a seat. After he got students working on an assignment, he would chat with each parent.

A peculiar thing happened when Henderson's mother arrived.

"My favorite teacher, who I thought so much of and I just assumed thought so much of me, didn't go to the door, didn't usher her to a seat," Henderson recounted.

The teacher left the room after giving students an assignment.

"We did our assignment. The bell rang. He didn't come back."

That out-of-textbook lesson in racial division changed Henderson's attitude about education.

"I stopped doing things for him," she said. "I started doing things for myself and my mother."

Henderson learned more in the wake of the Brown decision when she went to college.

She was notified by letter of her roommate's identity. Her roommate assignment was switched just before classes began.

"Halfway through the semester my roommate told me she got a similar letter, but hers had another paragraph identifying my race and explaining that her parents had the option of getting a new roommate," Henderson said.

Henderson confronted the dean of students. The policy of giving white students the option of rooming with blacks was discriminatory, Henderson explained, because blacks were denied an opportunity to pick a roommate.

Henderson said she never had a teacher of color in public school or college, but her parents instilled her with self-respect and a firm understanding of who she was.

"Had I not come equipped with that kind of motivation, I'm not so certain how some of those lessons would have played out in my educational experiences," she said.

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