Kansas City, Mo. It sounded like such a perfect fit: The daughter of the lead plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case was picked to lead a National Park Service site in a former all-black school in Topeka, Kan., where the groundbreaking case was born.
But just six months later, Cheryl Brown Henderson resigned, moved to a different office in the building and resumed leading a foundation she started to tell the history of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Now, almost a year later, the park service is kicking her foundation out of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, and the results of a government-commissioned audit into its finances are being released this week.
The demise of the partnership has created tension at the park site where both sides still share space.
“It’s very awkward,” acknowledged David Smith, superintendent of the site for the past three months. “I’ll be honest. The staff has had a really hard time.”
The first hint of trouble came over the summer when a federal investigation found Brown Henderson had failed to limit her involvement with the foundation while she led the National Park site. That involvement was seen as a conflict of interest because the investigators determined the foundation gets more than three-quarters of its funding from the park service and employed her sister and boyfriend.
Brown Henderson told The Topeka Capital-Journal that the situation “harkens back to the time when people of color were living lives filled with anxiety. I’m not the first to be on the receiving end of what I describe as bullying, harassment and intimidation.” She spoke only briefly with The Associated Press, calling the situation was “very strange” before referring questions to her attorney, Pedro Irigonegaray.
“The Brown Foundation’s presence adds a great deal to the park,” he said. “And clearly having the opportunity to speak with the daughter of one of the plaintiffs I think is a tremendous benefit. It’s sad to me and disturbing that that is no longer going to be available. I wish it were not so.”
Brown Henderson’s foundation, officially called the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, has been operating rent-free in the second floor of the National Park site since 2004. She hadn’t even started her job as superintendent of the site in the summer of 2010 when concerns were raised about a conflict of interest between the new position and her foundation job.
Ultimately, a recusal agreement was drafted because of the $300,000 in annual funding the foundation receives from the park service and concerns about Brown-Henderson’s close ties to its staff, including its chief financial officer. Brown Henderson called him a friend; the investigators said they had a “romantic” relationship.
Despite the recusal agreement, Brown Henderson remained involved with the foundation, investigators found. The report said Brown Henderson even tried to help the foundation draft a response to the federal investigation.
The report also found fault with the recruitment of Brown Henderson, noting the recruitment files were “disorganized and incomplete,” that human resources personnel provided “conflicting and confusing statements” and an alleged endorsement from then-U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback “created an appearance that Brown Henderson was provided an unfair preference.”