It was a cold and bitter wind that blew Linda Brown into the history books 35 years ago. She was 7 years old and had to walk six blocks in the worst of winter, then wait for a bus to take her 2½ miles to school. “Sometimes,” her mother, Leola, recalls, “the poor child would freeze and had to come home.”
There was another school just four blocks away from her home in Topeka, Kans., but Sumner Elementary was for white students only. One bright winter morning, her father, Oliver, pastor of St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church on nearby Harrison Street, took his daughter’s hand and tried to enroll her in Sumner. “I sat on a stool in the office while Daddy talked with the principal,” says Linda, who was quickly turned away because segregation was then legal in Kansas and 17 other states. “I could feel tension coming from Daddy’s hand and his face looked very stern on the way home.”
Linda Brown’s name led the list of complainants in a case that ranks among the most momentous in American jurisprudence. In its 1954 landmark decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation was against the law.
But all the freedom rides and all the sit-ins and all the civil rights legislation didn’t change much in Topeka, says Linda Brown Smith, now 43 and a grandmother. In 1979 she refiled the suit against the Topeka Board of Education, claiming that black children are still left out in the cold. “My children weren’t…exposed to all races in school,” she says, “and that is a big part of growing up and preparing for adulthood.” Linda had not pursued a leadership role in civil rights, but when asked to lend her name to a resumption of the case that bears her name, she did not hesitate. The issue, as it was all those years ago, is the racial composition of Topeka’s elementary and middle schools. The class-action suit seeks implementation of the Supreme Court’s desegregation directive but not damages.
Linda Brown Smith has two children, Charles David, 22, a laborer, and Kimberly Ann, 21, a senior majoring in business at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. Though their high school was integrated, they began their education at predominantly black elementary schools on the east side of Topeka. “When we went to games on the west side, I would look across the gym and see a sea of white faces,” says Linda. “On our side it was mostly black. Kim once said to me she thought the white kids had the best of everything. The best facilities, the nicest schools. She said she felt uncomfortable going there. I think the child was starting to feel inferior.”
Of the 15,000 students enrolled in the public schools of Topeka, 20 percent are black. Soon, Charles’s son Donnell, 5, will be among them. The local policy is to assign children to schools closest to their homes. Ironically this is what Linda’s father hoped to accomplish in 1954. But since the neighborhoods are still unofficially segregated, the eight parents and 17 students involved in the current case argue that the schools remain “racially identifiable” and should be unified by busing if necessary.
Gary K. Sebellus, attorney for the school board, insists that the schools are integrated, that student and staff assignments are not made on the basis of race and that, in obedience to the 1954 court order, the board has acted in good faith to root out every vestige of segregation. After hearing three weeks of testimony, federal district Judge Richard Rogers declared that he would issue his opinion early next year.
There were, of course, unrealistically high expectations created on May 17, 1954, when Linda came home from school, found her mother ironing and learned about the Supreme Court ruling. Life after that did not turn out quite as different as she expected. “I am real bitter,” she says.
Her father died in 1961 at the age of 42. For lack of money and time, she was never able to finish college. An early marriage collapsed and her second husband, Leonard Buckner, 46, has a bad heart and cannot work. She’s had a succession of jobs and now earns a modest living teaching piano.
In the hope of profiting from her reputation, she has started an educational consulting firm with her sister, Cheryl Henderson, 35, but so far the results have not been encouraging. (Another sister, Terry Tyler, 39, also lives in Topeka.)
But of all the wounds and insults, perhaps the most enduring is a terrible sense of injustice. “I feel like I’ve been exploited,” Linda says. “I’m a symbol, and people take advantage of me because I represent something. Look at the number of books and documentaries. Everywhere you turn there is the Brown name. You feel there is no one there to help you, and you think of all the things your family name has done to help others.”
On the other hand Linda Brown Smith has left proud imprints behind. She numbers among her fondest memories the day her daughter came home after seeing her mother’s picture in a history book. “Gosh, Mom,” the girl marveled, “we studied about you in school today.”