Esther Brown and the Launch of Brown v. the Board of Education

How one Jewish woman triggered Brown v. the Board of Education and the desegregation of southern schools

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Esther Brown with jazz singer Billie Holiday and students from C.J. Walker School (University of Missouri-Kansas City)

On this day in history… May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously made a “landmark” ruling that the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. [1]Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the opinion, “We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.”[2]

The modern civil rights movement was triggered partially by the actions of one Southern Jewish woman, who could no longer stand the conditions in which African American children were educated. The legal proceeding that led up to the landmark case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which overturned the legality of segregation, was not the result of the plaintiff in the case Linda Brown’s fight to secure for herself an education in a desegregated environment, but a result of the agitations of Esther Swirk Brown, a Southern Jewish housewife.

In 1947 Esther Brown was 30 years old and living in Merriam, a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, with her husband Paul Brown, and had lived her entire life in Kansas City, Missouri. The issue of segregation or desegregation was the furthest from her mind when she was driving her African American maid, Helen Swann home to South Park. The ride was enlightening as she never imagined the state of the schools where the community’s forty-four African American children were delegated to, nor the dilapidated house that her maid lived. The local elementary school was not fit for giving a proper education; the school was falling apart, had an outhouse, and only had two teachers instructing the students. As Richard Kluger describes, it was “a broken-down wooden grade school without plumbing, proper heating, or anything more than a tiny basement room for a cafeteria.”[3]

After Brown viewed the conditions in South Park, she believed that something needed to be done for South Park’s African Americans. However, what angered Esther Brown even more was when Mrs. Swann told her the school board was issuing a 90,000 dollar bond to build a new school for the two-hundred and twenty-two white children of South Park. As James Anderson explains, “The Walker School for black children in Merriam, Kansas, in the late 1940s was an old and dilapidated one-room building. Black parents were outraged by these conditions, especially in comparison to the $90,000 South Park Elementary School… for white students.” [4] She became passionately involved in a crusade to do what she believed was morally right despite the risks. When the black community approached her for advice, she urged them to speak with the school board and object and protest the bond for the new white school unless improvements were made to the African American school. They took her advice, but it proved fruitless; all the board did was install a new stop sign in front of the school.

Upset at the board’s inaction, Brown offered to speak to them. Brown recalled that “I went before the most gruesome bunch of people I’d ever seen in my life-I mean these were real lynchers, from the look of it.” [5] At first, the board and meeting attendants were courteous to her, while Brown tried to get the attention of the school board speaking in front of them, they offered to make superficial repairs, including changing light bulbs in the schools, or to bring in some desks from the white schools that were no longer needed, but only after the construction of the new school was completed. These were not the changes neither Esther Brown nor the African American community found just, and in response, Brown became even more involved in finding justice for them.

The white community would not take Esther Brown’s actions lightly. White Southern communities had invoked too much fear in African Americans to actively do anything about their situation even if they felt they were treated unjustly. Esther Brown rallied and encouraged the African American community to oppose the school board and even consider legal action. The school board president heard of her actions because he owned a feed store, where he supplied credit to many of South Park’s Blacks. After all, they would grow to produce to augment their paltry incomes. He invited Esther Brown to attend a board meeting to discuss the Black school; naively, Brown went alone and three hundred and fifty angry white citizens confronted her.

In opening the meeting, the board president claimed, “All of a sudden, we seemed to have a racial problem in South Park. Well, let me tell you that no nigger will get into South Park School as long as I live.”[6] The woman sitting behind Esther Brown tried to hit her and had to be calmed down. Brown was expected to respond to the board president, she told the hostile group, “Look, I don’t represent these people. One of them works for me, and I’ve seen the condition of their school. I know none of you would want poor children educated under such circumstances. They’re not asking for integration — just a fair stake.”[7] The school board audience told her to go home where she belonged, but when she claimed the president invited her, he lied, saying he had not.

The reactions were hardly rational nor what Esther Brown expected. It was a community that was too entrenched in a racial divide to even care about the African American population’s basic living, educational conditions even though it was literally at their doorsteps. Esther Brown was trying to reason with a racist white audience, but for most Southern whites and especially Jews, it was difficult to speak out against racial injustices; it had to be in a language that corresponded with the community’s norms. However, the school board’s actions changed Esther Brown’s attitude towards segregation and the African American community. In an interview with Richard Kluger years later, she claimed that because of the meeting, “I was a changed woman.” [8] Despite Brown and the African American community’s actions, the bond still passed.

Brown became very committed to the school cause, and the African American community rallied behind her. Brown would go door to door in the African American community, encouraging them to support a protest to the Walker School’s condition, and organized a branch of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in South Park. As Kluger describes, “She went on a one-woman crusade. The blacks did not know what to make of her. No white person had ever taken their side with such vehemence before.” [9] Brown realized it would take much more in terms of protest and a united front to get the school board to do something.

Esther Brown also believed legal action was necessary if changes were to occur and contacted the NAACP to help. They had a lawyer file the case, but Esther felt he did not have the passion the case needed. The situation was quite dire since, at the beginning of the negotiations, the board offered to build a new black school when the bonds for the white one would have been paid off, which would have been in nearly thirty years. After the case was filed the school board kicked out the Black school entirely from the South Park school district. They needed a dedicated lawyer was needed for such a problematic case with an entire community against it in every way.

Brown found that dedication in Elisha Scott, an African American attorney from Topeka, whom Brown described as “a little bent-over man with a big mustache and big black-frame glasses, and he was disorderly and unorganized and a drunk and one of the ugliest men I’d ever seen but I think he really cared.”[10] While Richard Couto describes Elisha Scott as “a prominent African American Kansas lawyer, came from an exoduster family from Tennessee. He and his sons played a large role in the school desegregation suit.” [11] Scott advised her that Kansas law did not allow segregation in small school districts with populations less than 150,000, such as South Park, and what the school board was doing was illegal. Despite his apparent passion, Scott still required fees, which shocked Brown as she claimed, “He always wanted money, which surprised me. I just assumed a Negro lawyer would work for a civil-rights cause for nothing, but Elisha was always needing twenty dollars for a deposition or fifty dollars for a brief-and I didn’t have it.”[12]

Brown, therefore, looked for other methods of getting the money either through the NAACP or fundraising. Jack M. Balkin recounts, “She persuaded the local Kansas City, Kansas NAACP to take the case and raised money for their legal expenses.” [13] She worked with the NAACP on a fundraising campaign, which she would go around speaking and raising money for the case. As Kluger quotes Brown, “If someone will put me up for the night,” she wrote to the NAACP branches across the state, “I have a story to tell.” [14]

African American families across Kansas opened up their homes to her, giving her a place to eat and to stay along her travels. She went to speak with them to the local “Y” and churches telling the community what the NAACP, she, and the African American community of South Park were trying to achieve. Esther Brown recounted about her travels, “I got to adore these people, who fed me and gave me clean sheets and took a chance on me. They were people with no ulterior motives who didn’t know what to want, who didn’t know what they were missing. Sometimes it seemed as if I cared more than they. I had to pull them, hold them, show them.” [15] In some places, Brown raised minimal funds, but she raised more significant amounts at some places, which all showed that the African American community believed in what she was doing and wanted to contribute, making her fundraising efforts successful for the South Park cause.

Brown became involved in fundraising for the case and the legal particulars and felt that Scott’s work was sometimes late or incompetent. She contacted the national office of the NAACP to get help for Scott, whereas Balkin writes, “she badgered Thurgood Marshall at the national headquarters of the NAACP in New York.”[16] Marshall was not too pleased with Esther Brown running this case; a significant stand against segregation in the South. Marshall wanted to take over the case and lead South Park’s African American community through this. Franklin Williams was sent to work with Scott on the case to improve efficiency. Marshall expressed his dislike of Brown’s leadership to Williams, claiming, “We don’t like the way it is presently being handled as a one-woman show.”[17] While Franklin Williams defended Brown’s actions, calling her “one of the few militant and outspoken members of the branch.” [18]

The case was argued as Webb v. Johnson County School District №90, also known as Webb v. South Park in Merriam, Kansas, and Elisha Scott was the lead attorney on the case. His grandson years later shared some recollections, comments, and insights on the case:

I was not of school-age when the Brown case was filed, and quite frankly I did not appreciate its meaning until I was twelve or thirteen. My grandfather Elisha Scott was the attorney for the case that precipitated Brown, Webb v. South Park. South Park is a little community just outside Kansas City. In 1948 they built a brand-new state-of-the-art school for the white children, and they acquired a one-room shack for all the black children, who were in grades one through eight. The black school only had two teachers, neither of them certified. I think they were volunteers. The school had outdoor toilets, no indoor plumbing, while just a few blocks away stood the brand-new state-of-the-art school. A number of citizens who didn’t think this was right contacted my grandfather to bring a suit to gain admission for black students to that new school. My grandfather argued that case before the Kansas Supreme Court. Following that decision, black students were admitted to that school. From that case, the decision to challenge the separate-but-equal doctrine in Kansas and to challenge segregation itself followed. My grandfather and Thurgood Marshall had quite an association, but my grandfather was an independent person who marched to his own tune. He wasn’t known as a general for justice. He was known simply as a foot soldier for justice.[19]

Although the lawsuit was an essential element, an additional pressure tactic was implemented when the new school year began. The African American community of South Park boycotted the rundown school in favor of private education. At the beginning of the school year in 1948, private schools were set up in homes and churches, and professional teachers were hired to teach the children. As James Anderson explains, “Webb and other black parents opened a home school with teacher Corinthian Nutter, who taught these children for more than a year.”[20] Each day Brown could build fires in the makeshift schools to keep the children warm; she went out of her way to help them even in small details; it showed she cared, and the black children were worth caring. The boycott only ended after all the testimony was taken for the lawsuit against the board.

Esther Brown sacrificed a lot for what she believed in; her work on behalf South Park’s African American children led to personal loss and harassment, and threats from the white Christian community in opposition to her actions. She suffered a miscarriage; her husband lost his job, her father-in-law called her a Communist, and a cross was burned on their front lawn. Also, the FBI had a file on her in which they suspected her of being a Communist, stating it was because Brown “actively agitated among Negroes in Kansas, getting them to assert their right to send children to a school for white children.”[21]

Brown even received threats to burn down her home, as Kluger describes, “when she called the district attorney of Johnson County to report a threat to burn her house down, he agreed with her that it was unlikely and added, “But if they do, call me.” His name was John Anderson, and he later got to be the governor of Kansas.” [22] However, for Brown, the end was satisfying despite her loss; the South Park school board lost. African American children were granted by the court permission to go to the area’s white schools, starting the school desegregation process in South Park. As Anderson recounts, “Elisha Scott took the lead in the Webb case. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 1949 that equal facilities must be provided for all children, and the Board was forced to admit black children to South Park Elementary School on the basis that the school facilities were unequal.”[23]

After the courts ruled that the African American children would be allowed to go to South Park’s white school, Esther Brown went out of her way to prepare the children for their new school. She became very involved in improving these children’s lives, and she either bought a dress or a shirt for each of the African American children and raised money to help those who could not afford to buy books and school supplies. She went far beyond the necessary. Kluger explains, “she brought seven children from one especially destitute family to her home and bathed them and took them to Kansas City University Health Center for emergency dental care, “which frightened the hell out of them.” [24]

The whole experience with desegregating South Park changed Esther Brown profoundly, desegregation became her most important cause, and despite her losses, she wanted to continue pursuing desegregation in other locations. As Kluger observes, “She had become, she realized, a full-fledged agitator. She continued to travel, declaring wherever she went, “We have to correct these conditions all over the state.”[25] Local NAACP chapters, especially in Kansas, including Wichita and Topeka, were vying for her attention and winning touch. Westmore in the NAACP office in Wichita was especially anxious in getting Esther Brown’s help and support. Brown wanted a lawsuit in Wichita because it was the largest city and would be a major victory.

Westmore wanted to start a desegregation lawsuit there, although there were too many issues standing in the way of success. Among them included “a considerable number of colored people, including some of the colored teachers… [feared] that if these changes were made, some of the colored teachers would lose their positions in the schools.” [26] African American teachers never believed that if the black schools would be eliminated that they would be allowed to teach in the newly integrated schools. The teachers realized there would still be too much resentment to allow blacks to teach white children. Their NAACP office also lacked material support for such an effort; there were few workers and had very minimal finances. However, that did not deter Westmore, who remained determined to overcome these obstacles and file a lawsuit.

The Kansas State NAACP Executive Committee also preferred to base a desegregation suit in Wichita rather than Topeka, partially because they were relying on three attorneys from the city for the case. They voted 7–2 in support of the lawsuit. However there was a backlash from the African American community, especially the teachers. In December, the branch’s new executive committee voted that it was against integration and opposed the lawsuit. One member had even gone so far as to write an article in praise of the local white school board in the local paper.

Despite the National NAACP’s pressure for a lawsuit in Wichita, there was too much opposition from the African American community that, in the end, it proved impossible to get enough support to pursue one, and the idea had to be dropped. The Topeka branch proved less hostile towards desegregation; it was also Elisha Scott’s hometown. There were some groups within the community that opposed forcing integration. In contrast, others were open to it, and in fact, had begun their own efforts already back in the fall of 1948 when they initiated a petition against the board; this was at the same time Esther Brown had been working on the lawsuit in South Park. Despite the mixed reception, Esther Brown worked with Elisha Scott and his two sons, Charles and John Scott, who were also lawyers, to gain the community’s support for the lawsuit.

Esther Brown played an instrumental part in preparing for the Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka case. She persuaded Oliver Brown, African American student Linda Brown’s father, to be the lead plaintiff. She worked to gather expert witnesses who identify the effects of segregation on African American children. She also lobbied the Urban League and local African American teachers for their support in the case. Finally, in 1950, the Topeka Branch of the NAACP was ready to start on the process, but between coordinating with the Scotts and the national office, it would take until February for the lawsuit to be filed.

In 1952, the Supreme Court combined five cases that had been heard about the unconstitutionality of segregation, including in South Carolina Briggs v. Eliott in Virginia, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County in Delaware, Gebhart v. Belton, and the original Kansas case into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall, who was serving as the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, argued the case in front of the Supreme Court. The court ruled in its 1954 opinion of the case that it is unconstitutional to have segregated schools. In 1955, the Supreme Court heard a second case Brown v. Board of Education II, which determined that the schools had to be integrated “with all deliberate speed.”

The African American community in Kansas, especially in South Park, and the NAACP, were grateful for Esther Brown’s activism. She was instrumental in initiating the cause with fervor. Being white made her involvement all the more significant, as it was rare for a white woman to work in such an earnest and personal investment for civil rights and desegregation. Alfonso Webb, the lead plaintiff in the school desegregation case in South Park, commended Esther’s work and best described her impact on school desegregation; “If it had not been for Mrs. Brown, we would not have gotten as far as we did as quick as we did. It took a white woman who had determination and contacts to spearhead the movement… Black people were just too scared, at least some of them were. Scared from history, scared from experience, scared from not enough experience.” [27] While Lucinda Todd, the Topeka branch of the NAACP secretary, also expressed her appreciativeness to Esther Brown, claiming “I don’t know if we could have done it without her.”[28] Her influence and impact were great not only in Kansas, but in the desegregation process all over the South over the next decade.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Remembering Esther Brown: She Was Responsible for the First Break in Segregated Education,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, №34, Winter, 2001–2002.

Anderson, James, and Dara N. Byrne, The Unfinished Agenda of Brown V. Board of Education. Hoboken, N.J: J. Wiley & Sons, 2004.

Balkin, J M, and Bruce A. Ackerman. What Brown V. Board of Education Should Have Said: The Nation’s Top Legal Experts Rewrite America’s Landmark Civil Rights Decision. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Couto, Richard A. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round: The Pursuit of Racial Justice in the Rural South. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

History.com Editors. “Brown v. Board of Education.” HISTORY. A&E Television Networks, October 27, 2009, January 19, 2021.
https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/brown-v-board-of-education-of-topeka

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. Revised edition. New York: Knopf, 2004.

Tushnet, Mark V. Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936–61. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

NOTES

[1] History.com Editors. “Brown v. Board of Education.” HISTORY. A&E Television Networks, October 27, 2009, January 19, 2021.
https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/brown-v-board-of-education-of-topeka

[2] https://faculty.uml.edu/sgallagher/SupremeCourt2.htm

[3] Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. Revised edition, (New York: Knopf, 2004), 388.

[4] James Anderson and Dara N. Byrne, The Unfinished Agenda of Brown V. Board of Education, (Hoboken, N.J: J. Wiley & Sons, 2004), 35.

[5] Kluger. Simple Justice, 388.

[6] Kluger. Simple Justice, 389.

[7] Ibid., Kluger. Simple Justice, 389.

[8] Ibid., Kluger. Simple Justice, 389.

[9] Ibid., Kluger. Simple Justice, 389.

[10] Ibid., Kluger. Simple Justice,389.

[11] Richard A. Couto, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round: The Pursuit of Racial Justice in the Rural South, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 378.

[12] Kluger. Simple Justice, 389.

[13] Balkin, J M, and Bruce A. Ackerman, What Brown V. Board of Education Should Have Said: The Nation’s Top Legal Experts Rewrite America’s Landmark Civil Rights Decision, (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 31.

[14] Kluger. Simple Justice, 390.

[15] Ibid., Kluger. Simple Justice, 390.

[16] Balkin, What Brown V. Board of Education Should Have Said, 31.

[17] Mark V. Tushnet, Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936–1961 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 153, 154.

[18] Ibid., Tushnet, Making Civil Rights Law, 153, 154.

[19] Anderson, The Unfinished Agenda of Brown v. Board of Education), 35, 36.

[20] Ibid., Anderson, The Unfinished Agenda of Brown v. Board of Education, 35.

[21] “Remembering Esther Brown: She Was Responsible for the First Break in Segregated Education,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, №34. (Winter, 2001–2002), 76.

[22] Kluger, Simple Justice, 390.

[23] Anderson, The Unfinished Agenda of Brown v. Board of Education, 35, 36; Tushnet, Making Civil Rights Law, 139.

[24] Kluger, Simple Justice, 390.

[25] Kluger, Simple Justice, 390.

[26] Tushnet, The NAACP’s Legal Strategy, 139.

[27] Anti-Defamation League, “50 Years Later…Looking Back…Reaching Forward,” Student Handouts and Supporting Materials for Teachers, Lesson 6: Building Alliances, 2004, 4.

[28] Kluger, Simple Justice, 390.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) and historian. She is the author of Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896, The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South, We Used to be Friends? The Long Complicated History of Jews, Blacks, and Anti-Semitism, and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History and Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.