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estherThe Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring the “separate but equal” segregationist policy in American schools to be unconstitutional and ordering their desegregation, was handed down on this date in 1954. It resulted from a suit brought by Esther Brown, a 30-year-old Jewish housewife in Merriam, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, who learned from her African-American maid about the abysmal conditions at the all-black two-room Walker School, which lacked indoor plumbing, a cafeteria, and even a principal. Brown complained to her all-white school board, then stepped up her efforts, recruited the local chapter of the NAACP, and hired a black attorney. She raised money for the legal battle, making pitches at a Billie Holiday concert and other venues, then organized a boycott of the Walker School and helped set up private educational networks instead. During the course of her efforts, she was threatened with harm, a cross was burned in her yard, and her husband was fired from his job — but the suit that she organized and initiated was won in the Kansas Supreme Court in 1949. She then helped the NAACP bring the issue of school segregation to the U.S. Supreme Court, using thirteen black parents, and their twenty elementary school-age children as plaintiffs — with the list headed by Oliver Brown (no relation), for whom the case was named, and his daughter Linda, a third-grader. Esther Brown died in 1970. Five years later, a public park across from the former site of the Walker School was dedicated in her honor.

“I don’t know if we could have done it without her.” —Linda Todd, Topeka branch of the NAACP