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Linda Brown, Symbol of Landmark Desegregation Case, Dies

She was a child whose exclusion from a whites-only school led to the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.

Linda Brown Smith in an undated photograph. She was a third grader when her father began a class-action lawsuit, which led to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision against school segregation. Credit Associated Press

Linda Brown, whose father objected when she was not allowed to attend an all-white school in her neighborhood and who thus came to symbolize one of the most transformative court proceedings in American history, the school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, died on Sunday in Topeka, Kan. She was 75.

Her death was confirmed on Monday by a spokesman for the Peaceful Rest Funeral Chapel in Topeka, which is handling her funeral arrangements. He did not specify the cause.

It is Ms. Brown’s father, Oliver, whose name is attached to the famous case, although the suit that ended up in the United States Supreme Court actually represented a number of families in several states. In 1954, in a unanimous decision, the court ruled that segregated schools were inherently unequal. The decision upended decades’ worth of educational practice, in the South and elsewhere, and its ramifications are still being felt.

Linda Brown was born on Feb. 20, 1943, in Topeka to Leola and Oliver Brown, according to the funeral home. (Some sources say she was born in 1942.)

Photo
Linda Brown in 1964 outside the Sumner School, which had denied her enrollment in 1950. Credit Associated Press

Cheryl Brown Henderson, Linda’s sister and the founding president of the Brown Foundation, an educational organization devoted to the case, recalled her parents and others being recruited to press a test case.

“They were told, ‘Find the nearest white school to your home and take your child or children and a witness, and attempt to enroll in the fall, and then come back and tell us what happened,’ ” she said in a video interview for History NOW.

Photo
Linda Brown Smith in an undated photograph. She was a third grader when her father began a class-action lawsuit, which led to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision against school segregation. Credit Associated Press

Linda Brown, whose father objected when she was not allowed to attend an all-white school in her neighborhood and who thus came to symbolize one of the most transformative court proceedings in American history, the school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, died on Sunday in Topeka, Kan. She was 75.

Her death was confirmed on Monday by a spokesman for the Peaceful Rest Funeral Chapel in Topeka, which is handling her funeral arrangements. He did not specify the cause.

It is Ms. Brown’s father, Oliver, whose name is attached to the famous case, although the suit that ended up in the United States Supreme Court actually represented a number of families in several states. In 1954, in a unanimous decision, the court ruled that segregated schools were inherently unequal. The decision upended decades’ worth of educational practice, in the South and elsewhere, and its ramifications are still being felt.

Linda Brown was born on Feb. 20, 1943, in Topeka to Leola and Oliver Brown, according to the funeral home. (Some sources say she was born in 1942.)

Photo
Linda Brown in 1964 outside the Sumner School, which had denied her enrollment in 1950. Credit Associated Press

Cheryl Brown Henderson, Linda’s sister and the founding president of the Brown Foundation, an educational organization devoted to the case, recalled her parents and others being recruited to press a test case.

“They were told, ‘Find the nearest white school to your home and take your child or children and a witness, and attempt to enroll in the fall, and then come back and tell us what happened,’ ” she said in a video interview for History NOW.

The neighborhood the family lived in was integrated.

“I played with children that were Spanish-American,” Linda Brown said in a 1985 interview. “I played with children that were white, children that were Indian, and black children in my neighborhood.”

Nor were her parents dissatisfied with the black school she was attending. What upset Oliver Brown was the distance Linda had to travel to get to school — first a walk through a rail yard and across a busy road, then a bus ride.

Photo
Ms. Brown in 1979 with Benjamin L. Hooks, the executive director of the NAACP, on the 25th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Credit Lou Krasky/Associated Press

“When I first started the walk it was very frightening to me,” she said, “and then when wintertime came, it was a very cold walk. I remember that. I remember walking, tears freezing up on my face, because I began to cry.”

In an interview with The Miami Herald in 1987, she remembered the fateful day in September 1950 when her father took her to the Sumner School.

“It was a bright, sunny day and we walked briskly,” she said, “and I remember getting to these great big steps.”

The school told her father no, she could not be enrolled.

“I could tell something was wrong, and he came out and took me by the hand and we walked back home,” she said. “We walked even more briskly, and I could feel the tension being transferred from his hand to mine.”

Photo
Linda Brown in 2004 during a 50th-anniversary commemoration of Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, Kan. Credit Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

In its ruling, the Supreme Court threw out the prevailing “separate but equal” doctrine, which had allowed racial segregation in the schools as long as students of all races were afforded equal facilities.

“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race,” the court said, “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.”

By the time of the ruling, Ms. Brown was in an integrated junior high school. She later became an educational consultant and public speaker.

Her family was among several that reopened the original Brown case in 1979 to argue that the job of integration in Topeka remained incomplete. The case resulted in the opening of several magnet schools.

Ms. Brown was married several times. The funeral home said her survivors include a daughter, Kimberly Smith, although it did not have a complete list of survivors.

As for her role in the landmark case, Ms. Brown came to embrace it, if reluctantly.

“Sometimes it’s a hassle,” she told The Herald, “but it’s still an honor.”

The neighborhood the family lived in was integrated.

“I played with children that were Spanish-American,” Linda Brown said in a 1985 interview. “I played with children that were white, children that were Indian, and black children in my neighborhood.”

Nor were her parents dissatisfied with the black school she was attending. What upset Oliver Brown was the distance Linda had to travel to get to school — first a walk through a rail yard and across a busy road, then a bus ride.

Photo
Ms. Brown in 1979 with Benjamin L. Hooks, the executive director of the NAACP, on the 25th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Credit Lou Krasky/Associated Press

“When I first started the walk it was very frightening to me,” she said, “and then when wintertime came, it was a very cold walk. I remember that. I remember walking, tears freezing up on my face, because I began to cry.”

In an interview with The Miami Herald in 1987, she remembered the fateful day in September 1950 when her father took her to the Sumner School.

“It was a bright, sunny day and we walked briskly,” she said, “and I remember getting to these great big steps.”

The school told her father no, she could not be enrolled.

“I could tell something was wrong, and he came out and took me by the hand and we walked back home,” she said. “We walked even more briskly, and I could feel the tension being transferred from his hand to mine.”

Photo
Linda Brown in 2004 during a 50th-anniversary commemoration of Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, Kan. Credit Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

In its ruling, the Supreme Court threw out the prevailing “separate but equal” doctrine, which had allowed racial segregation in the schools as long as students of all races were afforded equal facilities.

“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race,” the court said, “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.”

By the time of the ruling, Ms. Brown was in an integrated junior high school. She later became an educational consultant and public speaker.

Her family was among several that reopened the original Brown case in 1979 to argue that the job of integration in Topeka remained incomplete. The case resulted in the opening of several magnet schools.

Ms. Brown was married several times. The funeral home said her survivors include a daughter, Kimberly Smith, although it did not have a complete list of survivors.

As for her role in the landmark case, Ms. Brown came to embrace it, if reluctantly.

“Sometimes it’s a hassle,” she told The Herald, “but it’s still an honor.”

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