When Linda Brown Thompson and Cheryl Brown Henderson came to Saint Louis University for two Black History Month special events last week, they shared the experiences that changed not only the lives of their family but those of a nation.
Thompson and Henderson, daughters of the late Rev. Oliver L. Brown, who along with 12 other parents led by the NAACP, filed suit against the local Board of Education on behalf of their children. Upon appeal to the United States Supreme Court, the Topeka case became the lead case among five legal challenges under consideration by the court. Oliver Brown died in 1961 before knowing the impact of this landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, which bears his name - Oliver L. Brown et. al. vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, et. al.
The sisters were guest speakers for "Remembering the Legacy: Brown v. Board of Education - 60 Years Later" programs at the Center for Global Citizenship and at the School of Law's Civil Rights Symposium. They discussed the experiences of the families who stood with the NAACP as plaintiffs and shared the stories of the community organizers and attorneys who orchestrated the legal challenge to end racial segregation.
|Linda Brown Thompson and Cheryl Brown Henderson at the Center for Global Citizenship. Photo by Bryan Sokol.|
Thompson shared the experience of their father trying to enroll her in an all-white school a few blocks away from their home, as opposed to the two-miles it took to get to the all-black school.
Henderson highlighted the history of other key cases and efforts to create equal opportunity for all people, which is also a goal of the Brown Foundation where she is the founding president. "We know Brown did not end anything. But it dismantled the legal framework that segregation was resting on," Henderson said.
The reflections of those who were part of the experience not only gave the audience a view of the past but pointed to the changes that have taken place over the past 60 years, as well as the ongoing work that remains for today's generation and on into the future.
"The Brown decision expanded beyond education to have a broader impact on policy, law and society at-large," said LaTanya Buck, Director of the Cross Cultural Center. "We all continue to benefit, in many ways, from the bravery of these families who simply wanted equity, access and opportunity for their children."
Diana Carlin, Ph.D., Associate Vice President for Graduate Education and International Initiatives, believes those attending came away with new perspectives about one of the most important chapters in American history. Carlin also serves as a member of the board of the Brown Foundation.
"The Brown Legacy presentation provided our students with the personal side of history," Carlin said. "They had an opportunity to learn about an important chapter in the history of civil rights and also about the work that still needs to be done and is being done by individuals such as the Browns."
While most of those in attendance were SLU students and faculty, a slightly younger group was on hand for the law school's Civil Rights Symposium presentation by the Brown sisters.
|Students from De La Salle Middle School with Linda Brown Thompson and Cheryl Brown Henderson at the School of Law. Photo by Bryan Sokol.|
Students from the De La Salle Middle School, who are part of a unique SLU-sponsored reading program with third graders at St. Gabriel the Archangel Elementary School, were in the audience. As part of the program, the De La Salle students serve as reading leaders and mentors using storybooks about African American history.
Bryan Sokol, Ph.D., Director of the University's Center for Service and Community Engagement and program developer and coordinator, said the experience was significant.
"The De La Salle middle schoolers are mentoring their younger reading partners about iconic African-American leaders and innovators in history," Sokol said. "Much of that history, however, feels very far removed for the students, and even for the older De La Salle student leaders is often difficult to understand, especially a complex law suit like Brown v. Board of Education."
"Having the opportunity to listen and meet the Brown sisters was a unique learning experience. It made history ‘real' for the students, and not just part of a book or museum display. The teachers and I told them: ‘Today you became part of this important legacy, and now you are obligated to share what you learned with others.'"
The keynote presentations were sponsored by SLU's Cross Cultural Center, School of Law, Center for Global Citizenship, Division of Mission and Ministry, Center for Service and Community Engagement, and the African American Studies Program. The Civil Rights Symposium, sponsored by the Black Law Students' Association and the Sustainability and Urban Development Student Group, commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the 70th anniversary of SLU's integration.
About Linda Brown Thompson and Cheryl Brown Henderson
Linda and Cheryl are two of the three daughters of the late Rev. Oliver L. Brown, who along with twelve other parents led by the NAACP, filed suit against the local Board of Education on behalf of their children. Upon appeal to the United States Supreme Court, the Topeka case became the lead case among five legal challenges under consideration by the court. Oliver Brown died in 1961 before knowing the impact of this landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, which bears his name - Oliver L. Brown et. al. vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, et. al.
Linda Brown Thompson has been a Head Start teacher and at one time taught private music lessons in piano. She is currently a Program Associate with The Brown Foundation and serves as a member of the music department at one of the Methodist churches in Topeka, where she has chaired several project committees.
Cheryl Brown Henderson has been a sixth grade teacher, university guest lecturer, school guidance counselor, state educational administrator and is currently President and CEO of The Brown Foundation. She has been a member of numerous professional and civic organizations, and presently serves on several local, state and national boards. She is past chair of Women Work, a national network that represented some 15 million women nationwide who were seeking career assistance and employment in non-traditional fields.
In 1988, along with her co-worker, Jerry Jones, Cheryl Brown Henderson established The Brown Foundation. In 1990, the Foundation worked with the United States Congress to develop legislation, resulting in the establishment of the Brown v. Board of Education National Park. The Park opened in 2004 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision. It is located in Topeka at the site of one of the four formerly segregated African American schools. This was also the elementary school attended by their mother, two of the Brown sisters, Linda and Terry, and prior to the school's closing in 1975, Cheryl began her teaching career there in 1972.
The Brown Foundation shares office space with the National Park Service in this building which now contains interpretive exhibits and annually welcomes nearly 50,000 visitors including visitors from over 20 countries around the world.