Texas Tech University

Cheryl Brown Henderson: Remembering Brown v. Board of Education

Lucy Greenberg

February 20, 2023

Cheryl Brown Henderson

In anticipation of Brown Henderson visiting Texas Tech as part of the African American Lecture Series, she shares how the famous case changed her life.

Right before Cheryl Brown Henderson was born, her father, the late Rev. Oliver L. Brown, signed his name as one of 13 plaintiffs in a federal case. 

Educational separation in the US prior to Brown Map

Shortly after, Brown Henderson joined the world and became the third daughter of Rev. Brown. He had two older daughters, one in preschool and another in elementary school. Because his oldest attended a segregated school in Topeka, Kansas where they lived, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) approached him. 

One of the reverend's friends was an attorney for the NAACP, and he knew Rev. Brown not only had children in school but was a pillar of the community. The NAACP and many community members had real concerns about the legality of four of the city's 22 schools being separated for children of color. They felt the reverend might share their concerns and be willing to help. 

“A lot of people assume my family and other families involved were experiencing something just awful at school,” Brown Henderson said. “That was not the case.”

Brown Henderson says schools in Topeka were different than other schools in the country. Topeka schools were segregated, yes, but the schools for children of color were hubs of community activity. They had outstanding teachers and beautiful buildings. In fact, many people didn't see the need for change. 

Which begged the question: If his daughters were receiving a decent education, why did Rev. Brown sign his name to a case against the board of education? 

“Even though our schools were OK, many schools in the country were not,” Brown Henderson said. “I think my father was considering the larger picture. As a father, but also as a spiritual and community leader, he felt he had a responsibility to make things better.

“And even if our experience wasn't horrible, it still wasn't constitutional.”

Four years after her father signed his name, the case would make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It is now known as Brown v. Board of Education

In celebration and observance of Black History Month, Brown Henderson will visit Texas Tech University as part of the African American Lecture Series. She will speak at the School of Law's Lanier Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Tuesday (Feb. 21). Brown Henderson is the founding president of The Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research.

Ahead of her visit, she sat down with me to answer questions about her unique perspective of the landmark case, how it affected her family and how she's keeping her father's legacy going. 

What do you remember growing up? Did you and your family realize how big this case would become? 

My father signed as a plaintiff before I was born, so this case has always been part of my life. However, it certainly took time to realize how important it really was. 

My father signed in 1950, and the decision wasn't made until 1954. He signed and then life went on. Contrary to some people's assumptions, this wasn't our family's case. Yes, our name ended up at the top of the list, but there were 12 other families who signed from many places around the country. And ultimately, it was the NAACP's case. They were the ones in court off and on for four years – not the families. 

Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c13496. 
The members of the U.S. Supreme Court that on May 17, 1954, ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.

The members of the Warren Court, taken in 1953. (Back row - left to right): Tom Clark, Robert H. Jackson, Harold Burton, and Sherman Minton. (Front row - left to right): Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Stanley Reed, and William O. Douglas.

📷: Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c13496. 

When my father passed away in 1961, he had no idea the impact this case would have on the nation. We didn't realize either, we were grieving his loss and Brown v. Board of Education was not on the top of our minds. But things changed over the years. 

One day when I was 13 years old, I was coming home from school and saw a man I didn't recognize on the front porch. As I approached, he stuck out his hand and said, ‘Hi, my name is Charles Kuralt. I do a segment called On the Road for CBS and I was hoping to talk with your family.' That happened to be the 10-year anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and it was the first time its significance even registered in my mind. 

When I got to middle school, I remember feeling uncomfortable in my social studies class when Brown v. Board of Education came up. At that age, you don't want to draw much attention to yourself to begin with, and here's my family in the textbook. I was just too young to really understand the case and the larger narrative around it, so I hid that part of my life. Once I got to college, I realized ‘OK, this is a really big deal.' It was talked about a lot in my history courses and when the head of the history department found out who I was, it was something they wanted to recognize and honor. 

But it really wasn't until I turned 30 that I began to embrace this as part of my life and encouraged my mother and sisters to do the same. I realized we had a responsibility to preserve this history in a meaningful way. That's when the Brown Foundation began. 

What do you think your father's driving motivation was to get involved?

I think he recognized what was happening wasn't legal. It wasn't constitutional to keep a child from attending the school down the road by busing them across the city solely based on their race. But it was a sensitive topic, because a lot of the Black community in Topeka liked how things were. They didn't see a pressing need to integrate schools. So, I think my father knew whichever way he went, someone would disagree with him. No community is a monolith. Some will always fight for change, but some won't want to rock the boat. 

But his motivation was what was best for his community. A lot of people have the perception that his children must have faced some horrible injustice or traumatic experience, but that wasn't the case. Yes, he thought about his children, but I think he also felt an immense responsibility as a community leader. 

How has Brown v. Board of Education evolved over the past 70 years, and how has your understanding of it evolved? 

I think there have been moments where the gravity of what I'm involved in has hit me harder than others. I had the privilege to visit South Africa as they commemorated the passing of the South African constitution. I've met Rosa Parks, Sandra Day O'Connor and the King Family. There have been these incredible moments, but the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education will evolve as intentionally or unintentionally as we allow it. 

Meeting others who have these first-hand experiences, I realized there's a responsibility that we bear. Many of these stories will fade into the past if we sit back and rest on our laurels so-to-speak. 

There is a cost to being part of history. 

You make part of your life a mission of legacy work. I think for any of us who are part of these big moments in our country's history, we become teachers, whether we're teachers or not. That's part of it. But Brown v. Board of Education was just the start of a conversation, and the conversation will go on as long as we're willing to have it.

What has changed since the landmark decision, and what do you think still needs to change? 

We've made major strides racially and educationally since that time. Many people think Brown v. Board of Education was just about Black children being able to sit next to white children. But there was something deeper to it. It was about Black children having the same access and opportunities white children have. We still have historically black colleges and universities in the country and those are important. Students of color can go to a university like that and know they'll be surrounded by others like them. From kindergarten through graduate school, I never had one teacher who looked like me. So, having strong Black communities is important. We're still working on is this idea that everything needs to be the exact same. No, we should have different kinds of people, universities and communities, but they should all have access to the same opportunities.

In addition to running the Brown Foundation, you're also a lifelong educator. What do you want up-and-coming educators at Texas Tech's College of Education to know as they prepare to join the workforce? 

Remember that your job is to educate. That's your job before anything else. Let the school board and policymakers worry about counting heads. You focus on the students. So many people get caught up in how to implement policy, but that's a different job than being an educator. So, make sure you know what your focus is before going into the classroom.