SIMPLE JUSTICE

EXCERPT

Pages 408-411

 

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SIMPLE JUSTICE                                                                    Pages 408-411

 

 

Mr. Brown’s day in court

 

 

…Then it was the turn of Oliver Brown, the principal plaintiff.

It is one of the idiosyncrasies of American constitutional law that cases of profound consequence are often named for plaintiffs whose involvement in the original suit is either remote or merely fortuitous. So it was with the Brown of Brown v. Board of Education. Nothing in his background seemed to suggest that he would stand against the tide of apathy and fear in the black community of Topeka that had accepted segregated grade schools and oppressive economic racism since long before Oliver Brown’s birth in 1919. He was a loving and dedicated father of three little girls and very definitely the master in his own home, a one-story, five-room stone house at 511 First Street. It was not a very desirable neighborhood. Railroad tracks bisected the street, and the Browns lived nearly in the shadow of the Topeka Avenue viaduct that spanned the Kaw River a few   hundred yards north of their home. It was a racially mixed neighborhood, with Negro, Italian, and Mexican families in the immediate area, but mostly it was white. And noisy, for it was very close to a Rock Island switching yard for the trains that were vital a part of Topeka’s – and the Brown family’s – life.

To Oliver Brown’s oldest daughter, Linda Carol, the noise became routine but not the size of the trains. “They always looked enormous to me,” she remembers. We used to make up games with the trains and got to know some of the trainmen in the switching yards. They would give us candy sometimes. I remember one very big, robust switchman who always waved at us three girls and yelled, ‘Hi, boys!’ and we’d always call back, ‘Hi, Mary!’ He reminded me of Santa Claus. But the most thrilling thing about living near there was when the Mid-America came to town by railroad, and we’d always be the first to know because they’d bring the show cars up on a siding. We loved to see the red-and-yellow cars with animals and the troupers’ quarters and the silver flatcars with the words ‘Royal American Shows’ on the sides.” Life for the Brown girls had its less spectacular pleasures as well.  It was a daily highlight when their father would come back from his job as a welder repairing boxcars at the Santa Fe shops about half a mile east on First Street. He would toss his goggles aside, sometimes catch a quick nap to chase the fatigue that his job induced, and then joke with his youngsters over the dinner table, though he was normally a stern man. Friday nights were special times when they would pop corn and Oliver and Leola Brown would reminisce about their own childhood days, and afterward Oliver would be there to hear their bedtime prayers. It was a religious household – grace before meals, the Child’s and later the Lord’s Prayer before retiring, Sunday School each week without fail – and Oliver Brown gave what he could in time and energy to his work as part-time assistant pastor at St. John AME, the big church about seven blocks from home.

 

 

 

 

 

SIMPLE JUSTICE                                                                    Pages 408-411

 

 

Linda Brown attended the Monroe School about a mile away. To get to it, she used to walk between the train tracks for half a dozen blocks down First Street to the corner of Quincy, where she caught the school bus. There would generally be movement in the switching yards at that time of the morning, but still she preferred to walk on the grassy strips between the tracks rather than along the warehouse- lined edges of First Street, which had no sidewalks. One bright September morning in 1950 when Linda was seven years old and about to begin third grade, her father took her for a little walk in the neighborhood. They avoided the trains entirely as they headed west on First Street, past where the tracks veer north to the  river, for three or so blocks and then turned south onto Western Avenue, a pleasant, tree-lined street of modest but well-kept homes. Her father led her by the hand along Western for three and a half blocks till they reached the Sumner School for white children. Prettier than the plain, dark-brick, and rather gloomy-looking Monroe School for colored children that she attended, Sumner had a little tower on one end topped by a fancy weathervane and at the other end a big wall sculpture of the sun beaming down on a flock of children running, skipping, jumping rope, rolling a hoop, and flying a kite. As they climbed the front steps, there was tension in Oliver Brown that his daughter could detect, even at her age. They were directed to the principal’s office, and Linda waited outside the door for a few minutes while her father went in. He was upset when he came out, to judge by his tone of voice, and “quite upset” when he got home.

It is Linda’s recollection that a registration notice for all the families in the Sumner School zone had been stuck in the door of every home, including the Browns’, late that summer and that her father, simply fed up that September with the long trip that Linda had had to make each day to the Monroe School, tried to enroll her at Sumner in defiance of the segregation rule. When he was refused, according to later accounts of the incident based largely on Linda’s recall, Brown took his case to the NAACP, which then began the case bearing his name.

Oliver Brown died in 1961 at the age of forty-two without ever giving a detailed account of his participation in the case, but it is almost certain that the many versions of the story that cast him in the role of heroic leader are inaccurate. This is not to say that he did not step forward when summoned – only that the fight had begun long before and that Oliver Brown was never in the vanguard. The local NAACP under McKinley Burnett, and with the forceful guidance of Esther Brown, almost certainly had taken the initiative in approaching Oliver Brown that summer, as it had several dozen other black parents whose children had to make particularly long trips to school. Litigation had been contemplated for several years, and Oliver Brown, though hardly an NAACP enthusiast, qualified as an ideal litigant. Some who knew him well attributed Brown’s uncharacteristic par­ticipation in the case to his deep conviction that God had approved it.

 

 

 

 

 

SIMPLE JUSTICE                                                                    Pages 408-411

 

 

Little Linda Brown was shielded from the case, for the most part. At no time did her father sit her down and tell her what it was all about. But she does remem­ber going with him to an evening meeting at the Church of God, where the NAACP’s Mac Burnett was a leader of the congregation, and being called up to the front of the room to stand on the podium while somebody demanded of the audience, “Why should this child be forced to travel so far to school each day?” She was not in the courtroom, though, that Monday morning in late June of 1951 when her father uneasily took the witness stand.

He was nervous. And he was not helped much by attorney Charles Bledsoe, whose inexperience was apparent. He left out basic steps in the examination, such as establishing what school Linda attended.  Brown failed to speak up firmly enough until coaxed by Judge Huxman, and when he did, his discomfort showed as he said that Linda’s school was fifteen blocks away and then corrected it to twenty-one. But then Oliver Brown pulled himself together and got his story out. Linda had to leave home at 7:40 a.m. to get to school by nine. She had to go through the dangerous Rock Island switching yards to get to the bus pickup point by eight o’clock, but often the bus was late and “many times she had to wait through the cold, the rain and the snow until the bus got there.” It was a thirty-minute ride to school, and so if the bus was on time, Linda got to wait – sometimes as long as half an hour – in front of the school until it opened at nine. Bledsoe asked him whether his daughter would confront any such hazardous conditions if she attended the nearby Sumner School. “Not hardly as I know of,” said Oliver Brown. And how far away was the Sumner School?  Seven blocks. Was he a taxpayer, Bledsoe asked. Goodell objected, but the bench let the question stand. Yes, said Oliver Brown, he was a taxpayer. Well, wouldn’t he consider it an advantage to have a school in the neighborhood which his children could attend?  Goodell again objected and this time was sustained. Bledsoe, getting into the swing of it now, argued with the bench: “If the court please, I believe that is really a part of our case.”  Huxman dryly remarked that the court would take judicial notice that every parent would prefer to have his or her child attend a school closer to home than one far away. With that, Goodell took over for a brief cross-examination. He referred the witness to a large map of Topeka divided into school zones.

 

Q.    You say your child goes four blocks to the bus pick-up point?

A.    She goes six blocks to the pick-up point.

Q.    Six blocks, pardon me. Don’t you know as a matter of fact that in many, many instances there are children that go to the white schools in this town that go thirty and thirty-five blocks and walk to get there?

CARTER: I object to that.

BROWN: Where at?

CARTER: I see no materiality to this question.

JUDGE HUXMAN: Objection will be sustained. That is not proper cross-­examination of this witness.

 

With that, Oliver Brown was excused. It was 11:15 a.m. when he left the stand and passed into American history….

 

 

 

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