Linda Brown, Center of Landmark Desegregation Case, Dies at 76

Linda Brown, who as a third grader was the center of the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, died in Topeka, Kansas Sunday afternoon. She was 76.

Her sister, Cheryl Brown Henderson, confirmed the death to The Topeka Capital-Journal, and said the family wouldn't comment on her sister's death.

The case that rejected racial serration in American schools involved several families, all fighting to dismantle decades of federal education laws that condoned segregated schools for black and white students. But it began with Brown's father Oliver, who tried to enroll her at the Sumner School, an all-white elementary school in Topeka.

The school board denied Linda's enrollment and Brown, an assistant pastor at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church, was angry his daughter had to travel miles to go to school. With the NAACP and a dozen other plaintiffs, Oliver Brown filed a lawsuit against the Topeka Board of Education.

linda-brown-sumner-elementary-school-topeka-brown-v-board-of-education_getty-Carl Iwasaki : Contributor copy
(Photo: Carl Iwasaki / Contributor, Getty)

The court unanimously ruled to strike down the doctrine of "separate but equal," with justices agreeing that it denied 14th Amendment guarantees of equal protection under law.

"I just couldn't understand," Linda Brown told NPR 19 years after the milestone decision. "We lived in a mixed neighborhood but when school time came I would have to take the school bus and go clear across town and the white children I played with would go to this other school."

"My parents tried to explain this to me but I was too young at that time to understand," she said.

Carolyn Campbell, a lifelong friend of Linda Brown and a former Kansas Board of Education member, recalled to The Capital-Journal riding to Topeka High School together as teenagers.

“Linda was quiet. It was difficult for Linda to be pushed into the spotlight at a young age,” she told NPR.

Though Linda Brown often stayed out of the spotlight, as she grew older, she became more vocal, fighting segregation in schools again in the 1970s and traveling the country to talk about her experience in Topeka.

After the Brown case was decided, Linda Brown's family moved in 1959 to Springfield, Missouri, where Oliver Brown died two years later. His widow, Leola Brown, moved back to Topeka with Linda and Cheryl Brown.

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Topeka mayor Michelle De La Isla, who is also the diversity and inclusion representative at Westar Energy, called Linda Brown a role model for empowerment who made the city “a landmark of freedom.”

“This is a huge loss to our community,” De La Isla said. “We will continue to champion civil rights. When you look at the diversity of our community, I think we’re already honoring her legacy.”