Zelma Henderson & the Board of Ed

Brown v. Bd of Ed Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas

Brown v. Bd of Ed Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas

At 12:52 p.m. on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, commonly known as Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka.

The opinion stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and that the separate but equal doctrine, which allowed states to maintain racially segregated schools, had “no place” in public education.

The team of lawyers included Chief Legal Counsel for the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, representing the plaintiff’s successfully argued their case.  A group of 13 parents of African-American children in Topeka, Kansas, felt that the separation of white and black children proved that the doctrine of “separate but equal”, a practice used in the Topeka school system, was not a workable or constitutional plan.

58 years before this landmark case, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1896 in the case of Plessy v Ferguson, that blacks and whites could in fact live separately and that the rights of blacks would be assured. In that case, Homer Plessy, attempted to ride in a train car, even being just one-eighth black, he could not receive the same treatment as white riders of the train. He was removed from the train and arrested for violating state separation of race laws. In 1896, the Supreme Court, wrongly ruled that the “separate but equal” doctrine would work in the United States and that segregation was fair and constitutional.



Throughout the United States a “two-tier” system was established and operated, to make sure whites did not have to live their lives near blacks and that blacks were required not to “intrude” on the public lives of whites. This system of segregation obviously proved time and time again that separate was seldom equal. The case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a culmination of 5 lower court rulings that left the segregation idea unclear. So the Supreme Court would finally end the controversy and re-visit the 58 year old assumptions in Plessy v. Ferguson.

The court’s decision in the Brown case began the process of dismantling segregated public school systems in 16 states that required separate facilities, as well as the District of Columbia and four states including Kansas, that permitted the racially divisive practice. Segregation in all parts of public life, had been based on the “separate but equal” doctrine. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson, the court found  that segregation did not conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment (equal protection under the law) as long as separate facilities for “Negroes” were equal to those for whites. The Brown decision overturned the court’s earlier decision in the Plessy case.

State and local governments along with their school boards, primarily in the Old Confederate States, had successfully operated under a misinterpretation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Since the passing of the Amendment on July 9, 1868, Southern States bitterly fought this addition to the Constitution and have either ignored the “equal protection” clause, the “due process” clause, and the “citizenship” clause  or had litigated the intent of the law for several decades.

Oliver Brown was the lead plaintiff in the case Brown et al v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al. His daughter had to walk to a bus stop then take a school bus, but lived only a few blocks from the nearest school that happened to be reserved for white children. Mr. Brown, a member of the local branch of the NAACP, agreed to attempt to enroll his daughter in the nearby white school. Of course he was sent away and then became part of the case brought by the NAACP. The “et al”, Latin meaning “and others”, included 12 other parents for a total of 13 Black plaintiffs. The last plaintiff to die was Zelma Henderson. She passed away in 2008.



Mrs. Zelma Henderson in 2004.

Mrs. Zelma Henderson in 2004.

Mrs. Henderson an African-American, went to desegregated schools back in her home town of Oakley, Kansas. The state law at the time allowed segregation depending on the size of the town. Towns with more than 15,000 people had to be segregated, however towns that had less than 15,000 could integrate the school.  Zelma’s family lived on a farm in a small town.  When Mrs. Henderson and her husband moved to Topeka, they were shocked to have their children attend a segregated school. After experiencing segregation and discrimination in employment and other parts of life, the Henderson’s decided to join the NAACP’s lawsuit.

Zelma Henderson, in a Boston Globe interview in 2008, said “I wanted my children to know all races like I did,” Ms. Henderson said in a 2004 interview. “It means a lot to a person’s outlook on life. No inferiority complex at all, that’s what I wanted for my children as far as race was concerned.” Mrs. Henderson knew, and a key point of the case, was that African-American children, and therefore all blacks, had the potential of developing a feeling of not being capable of success or good enough in life; an inferiority complex.

Today one of the four former minority schools, Monroe Elementary, is now the site of the Brown v. Board of Education Historic Site. Sadly, the land the school is on was once owned by an abolitionist, John Ritchie. He wanted to have blacks to be treated fairly, segregation didn’t do that. After the Civil War he allowed freed Blacks moved to that land and build homes. After his death the school board bought the land and built a school there for black children, and continuned the poor treatment of blacks Ritchie sought to stop.

The 13 plaintiffs had no idea that school desegregation would lead to desegregation laws throughout the country. Quoted in a Dallas Morning News story in 1994, Henderson said, “None of us knew that this case would be so important and come to the magnitude it has. What little bit I did, I feel I helped the whole nation.”

[socialpoll id=”2268560″]

Waiting to view the arguments at the Supreme Court in the Brown case

Waiting to view the arguments at the Supreme Court in the Brown case

To re-take the Quiz wait 60 seconds for it to reset.

Brown v. Board of Ed

5 Questions – Brown v. Board of Ed

Leaderboard: Brown v. Board of Ed

maximum of 5 points
Pos. Name Entered on Points Result
Table is loading
No data available


Separate was not equal

Separate was not equal



Protesting is a right; "free speech"

Protesting is a right; “free speech”




  1. Where would Black Americans be today without better education, the freedom to travel and participate in everyday life?

  2. Pingback: Brown v. Board Education; Not Just Schools

  3. Pingback: Thurgood & the Team

  4. Pingback: Brown v. Board of Ed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *