Archive for Thursday, May 22, 2008

Brown v. Board plaintiff dies at 88

May 22, 2008

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— The last surviving Topeka plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education case that led to the landmark ruling outlawing school segregation has died at 88.

Zelma Henderson died Tuesday in Topeka, six weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

In 1950 she signed onto the litigation on behalf of her children challenging Topeka's segregated schools. In all, 13 black parents, including the Rev. Oliver Brown, took part in the federal court case.

Oliver Brown was involved in the lawsuit on behalf of his oldest daughter, Linda. He wanted her to attend an all-white school five blocks from home rather than an all-black school 20 blocks away.

The plaintiffs lost in U.S. District Court, but the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, along with similar cases from Virginia, South Carolina and Delaware, all challenging the constitutionality of racial segregation of public schools. They were consolidated by the court as Brown v. Board. A similar case from the District of Columbia was decided the same day, but wasn't part of Brown.

The high court's unanimous ruling overturning school segregation came on May 17, 1954. It outlawed the "separate but equal" doctrine and was a prelude to the civil rights movement.

"It was the first big legal victory to chip away at Jim Crow," said Dennis Vasquez, superintendent of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka.

He said Zelma Henderson was involved with the historic site, including being part of an interactive video for visitors.

"Her passing is a rather large milestone in the history of the case and that period of our history. It puts it in more of a historical perspective because there are no longer any living plaintiffs in the Topeka case," Vasquez said.

"Even though she has recently passed and we're saddened by it, we're pleased she will be immortalized in our museum and was able to speak directly about her experience," he said.

As a child in the 1920s and '30s, she had attended desegregated schools in the western Kansas town of Oakley. She was disgusted when she learned her children would be required to attend segregated schools in Topeka. Kansas state law permitted segregated elementary schools in towns with at least 15,000 residents.

Her children attended an all-black school that was 10 blocks farther away from their home than a whites-only school.

"I wanted my children to know all races like I did," Henderson told The Associated Press in 2004. "It means a lot to a person's outlook on life. No inferiority complex at all, that's what I wanted for my children as far as race was concerned."

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