A new book features the voices of plaintiffs in the landmark Brown v. Board case and their descendants, bringing to light the experiences of several families in five states.
"Recovering Untold Stories: An Enduring Legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision" was published by the University of Kansas Libraries.
The May 1954 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court deemed segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
Cheryl Brown Henderson, founding president of the Brown Foundation, said the impetus behind the project was to focus on the "et al." The judicial system uses the term, meaning "and others," when cases are consolidated. Five cases were consolidated under the Brown heading. The case bears the name of Henderson's father, Oliver Brown.
"Often times it relegates, in this case, nearly 300 people to what I call legal wasteland because their names won't be known, their stories won't be told," she said.
Beginning with the 50th anniversary of the decision in 2004, Henderson said the foundation began researching and locating people from the five cases.
"With that information, with that knowledge, we thought, 'OK, this is a treasure trove of people and these are voices that no one has ever heard,' " she said.
Over a period of two years beginning in 2016, participants attended workshops at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
"It was emotional at times," Henderson said. "It was certainly insightful at times. It was a stark reminder about the struggle on racial discrimination and how, sadly, it continues."
She and four scholars from the University of Kansas guided participants though the process of constructing a first-person narrative.
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she said.
The original cases were brought in Kansas, Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and D.C. Henderson said they heard a recurring theme throughout the project.
"We had set up a narrative in this country that for some to have power and privilege, others had to be oppressed, and that was something that we heard," she said.
Another theme was the importance of education in creating a strong citizenship and opportunity.
Plaintiffs who signed onto the lawsuit, especially families in the south, faced attacks.
"The backlash was immediate, and the backlash was violent," Henderson said, with people being fired from their jobs and their homes set on fire.
There were also significant impacts felt after the decision. One Virginia county closed public schools for five years, affecting students of all colors.
"It has been a relentless theme of those wanting to hang on to power and privilege and wanting somehow to oppress others," Henderson said. "In my view, we haven't really changed enough in our country."
She hopes readers will see the courage of the men, women and children involved in the case.
"I hope readers will recognize that before attorneys can take a case, before they can move it forward through all the levels of the judicial system, there have to be plaintiffs," she said. "They're relatable people. They're kids in high school, parents that are simply wanting the best education and the best opportunity for their children, exactly like parents today."
The book's cover shows the mural at the Kansas Capitol that was inspired by the case. Four essays from Topeka families are featured in the book, which can be downloaded at no cost at kuscholarworks.ku.edu/handle/1808/27702 and printed on demand for $19.25 at www.kubookstore.com/p-147781.aspx.