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Linda Brown, Key Figure in Brown v. Board Desegregation Case, Dies at Age 76

Linda Brown as a child (Credit: AP file photo)

Linda Brown, whose father was the lead plaintiff in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, has died at age 76. Her case led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation after her father, Oliver Brown, tried to enroll her in the then-all-white Sumner Elementary School in Topeka in 1951. Three years later, the nation’s high court ruled that she could not be redirected to an all-black school much farther from her home. At the time, the Topeka school district had four elementary schools for black children and 18 for white children. The NAACP, which had encouraged Oliver Brown and other black parents to enroll their children in white schools, consolidated that case with those from other states. The case took on the name of Brown because it was first alphabetically among the plaintiffs. An 1896 Supreme Court ruling had sanctioned “separate but equal” facilities for people of different racial backgrounds. In 1954, after hearing arguments from future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the high court exposed that “separate but equal” standard as essentially convenient legal fiction. Its unanimous decision that said such a system robbed African-American children of the better-funded schools that white families took for granted.  Linda Brown was born Feb. 20, 1942, in Topeka and was in junior high — where Topeka had already begun to integrate — by the time of the historic court ruling. The family moved to Springfield, Missouri, in 1959 and Oliver Brown died two years after that. Linda Brown later attended Washburn University in Topeka and Kansas State University. She eventually married and raised a family. She was married twice. She and her first husband divorced. Her second husband preceded her in death. Later in life, she complained that her role in a prominent case left her at times feeling exploited by media coverage that overlooked her humanity in favor of focusing on her brush with prominence. Carolyn Campbell, a lifelong friend of Brown and a former Kansas Board of Education member, recalled to the Topeka Capital-Journal riding to Topeka High School together as teenagers. “Linda was quiet,” she told the newspaper. “It was difficult for Linda to be pushed into the spotlight at a young age.” Still, she and the Brown family continued to pursue civil rights causes. In 1979, she worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to reopen the original Brown V. Board case over continued unequal treatment of children in Topeka schools. A federal appeals court ruled in 1993 that the city’s schools remained racially divided. Three new schools were built in response. The Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research was opened in 1988 to honor the plaintiffs and attorneys in the case and to advocate for equal opportunity. Cheryl Brown Henderson, Linda Brown’s sister, was the founding president. The National Parks Service operates the Brown v. Board of Education national historic site at 15th and Monroe streets in Topeka. 

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