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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,310

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This is the grave of Oliver Brown.

Born in 1918 in Springfield, Missouri, Brown at some point moved to Topeka, Kansas and worked as a welder on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. He also wanted to become a minister and was working on that goal.

Now, we think of segregation as a southern problem, especially when we talk about the civil rights movement, we think of the South. That is something we need to change. Yes, some of the worst legal segregation was in the South but most of the north was pretty segregated too. Moreover, many northern cities, such as Topeka, were completely segregated in a full Jim Crow way. There was strict school segregation in Topeka. And this is where Brown enters our history.

Topeka’s Black community, like Black communities around the nation, did a lot of organizing in the years during and after World War II to push for their rights. It took awhile for this to make a big difference, largely because legal cases simply take a long time to come to fruition. But working with the NAACP, which had a vastly expanding membership as Black workers began to make more money during the war and had the means to join such organizations, Topeka parents wanted to fight to desegregate the schools.

Now, Oliver Brown was an extremely reluctant plaintiff. He wasn’t really even a leader in the Topeka movement. In fact, of all the thirteen parents named on the lawsuit, he might well have been the most reluctant. You can’t blame anyone for this. There were lots of personal reasons to not get involved in things like this. He could lose his job. He could face violence. His family could get harassed. Things like this happened all the time and they convinced lots of people who wanted change to back off. Just easier to keep your head low. But Brown hung in. His friend Charles Scott, an attorney working on the case, personally asked him to join the case and he agreed. Brown’s daughter Linda was entering the fifth grade at the time and wanted to go to the vastly superior and closer white school that was denied her.

Of course, this was not the only case around desegregation at the time. The NAACP combined this case with ones from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. But it kept Brown’s name on it. Why was Brown the lead plaintiff if he was so reluctant? Almost certainly it is because he was the only man. All the plaintiffs were women. He wasn’t even the first alphabetically, so that’s not the explanation. It’s just another way gender inequality worked in America.

Brown himself ended up having little to do with the famed case that it is in his name. Of course we don’t need to go over the importance of Brown v. Board here. It’s just interesting that the individual with the case named after him was a pretty reluctant guy and didn’t want all the publicity either.

In fact, Brown wouldn’t live that long. In 1961, now a minister working in Springfield, Missouri, where he got a pastorate, was driving to Topeka from Lawrence with another pastor when he had a heart attack in the car and died. He was 42 years old.

Oliver Brown is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Topeka, Kansas.

If you would like this series to visit other people in the desegregation battles of the 50s and 60s, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jefferson Thomas, who was one of the Little Rock Nine, is in Glendale, California and Vivian Malone, one of the students who desegregated the University of Alabama, is in Atlanta. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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