Friday 20 April 2018

Obituary: Linda Brown

Schoolgirl at the centre of the 1954 landmark civil rights case that ended segregation in American schools

Linda Brown. Brown, the Kansas girl at the center of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down racial segregation in schools, has died at age 75. Peaceful Rest Funeral Chapel of Topeka confirmed that Linda Brown died. Photo: AP
Linda Brown. Brown, the Kansas girl at the center of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down racial segregation in schools, has died at age 75. Peaceful Rest Funeral Chapel of Topeka confirmed that Linda Brown died. Photo: AP

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Linda Brown, who died last Sunday aged 75, was the child at the centre of Brown v Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in the United States that began the process of ending racial segregation in public schools.

In 1950 Linda Brown's father, Oliver, had tried to enrol his seven-year-old daughter in Sumner, an elementary school four blocks from their home in Topeka, Kansas, but she was denied a place on account of her colour. She was instead to be educated at the all-black Monroe school, which required a long walk through a dangerous railway yard and across a busy road before catching a bus for the last two miles.

The issue was not the quality of education at Monroe, but the distance involved. "It was very frightening," she recalled of her daily journey. Her father was involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. In 1951 it brought a legal challenge to the law, which was based on an 1896 Supreme Court ruling (Plessy v Ferguson) of "separate but equal" that allowed state-sponsored segregation. "He felt that it was wrong for his child to have to go so far a distance to receive a quality education," Linda Brown said.

There were 13 families involved in the case, which was filed in the Federal Court in February. Because Brown was the first alphabetically, theirs was the name associated with the ruling. The lead lawyer for the NAACP was Thurgood Marshall, who would later be the first African-American member of the Supreme Court. Linda Brown attended some of the hearings, although unlike her nervous father, she was not required to testify.

As the case advanced through the courts there were threats and scares: black teachers were warned that they could be out of a job if the ruling went in favour of desegregation, because the parents of white children would not accept them in integrated schools.

By the time the Supreme Court gave its unanimous decision, on May 17, 1954, Linda Brown had moved to a junior high school that was already integrated.

Her mother was at home doing the ironing when she heard the ruling on the radio. Linda Brown recalled the family's joy when she returned from school: "My father [said], 'Thanks be to God', because he knew that this was the right thing that had happened." That night they attended a celebration rally organised by the NAACP.

Despite the ruling there was still much to be done to abolish racial segregation. The following year Rosa Parks sat in the "whites-only" section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, while in 1957 nine black students had to be escorted by federal troops into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, after the state governor ordered the national guard to block their entry.

Speaking in 2004, Linda Brown said that the case "might have been a little flame, but it… set off a mighty flame".

Linda Carol Brown was born in Topeka on February 20, 1943. Her father, the Rev Oliver Brown, was a railway welder and later a pastor at the local black Methodist church, while her mother Leola took care of Linda and her two younger sisters. After the Supreme Court case, the family moved in 1959 to Springfield, Missouri, but when her father died two years later they returned to Topeka. She went to Washburn University, and later gave occasional lectures about Brown v Board of Education. She also worked as an educational consultant and played the piano at her local church.

Linda Brown was divorced from her first husband, Charles Smith. Her second husband, Leonard Buckner, died in the 1980s. In 1996 she married William Thompson, who also predeceased her. She had a son and a daughter from her first marriage.

© Telegraph

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