Esther Brown, unsung hero who helped end segregation
The Star set out to tell the stories of 10 hometown heroes. Here is one of them.
Esther Brown is not the namesake of Brown v. Board of Education.
But Hugh Speer, who wrote “The Case of the Century” about the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, once told the Merriam housewife:
“If Abe Lincoln were around to shake your hand, he no doubt would say something like he did to Harriet Beecher Stowe, ‘Is this the little woman who started it all?’ ”
Everyone knows about Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation laws to be unconstitutional. But hardly anyone remembers Esther Brown and what happened five years earlier in a Johnson County neighborhood — or any connection between the two.
Brown, a white Jewish woman, led a legal fight to force the small South Park district in Johnson County to allow black students to attend a new school. She got involved because the children of her maid walked past the new school on their way to the older, rundown “colored” school.
Some say the South Park case, Webb v. School District No. 90, paved the way for the more famous Topeka case. In 1990, when looking back at Brown v. Board of Education, the secretary of the Topeka NAACP said: “I don’t know if we could have done it without Esther Brown.”
Her activism brought threats, accusations of being a communist, police harassment, her husband’s firing — by his own father — and an FBI investigation in which she was accused of having “actively agitated Negroes, getting them to assert right to send children to school for white children.”
Brown’s daughter, Susan Tucker, described her mother as a beautiful woman who had a profound sense of justice and injustice, fueled likely by anti-Semitism she and her family experienced. The jump to civil rights came naturally.
“I’m sure there were a lot of people who thought she should mind her own business,” Tucker said. “But, of course, she thought civil rights and social justice were her business.”
It’s a story that could begin in 1619 with the first slave ship arriving in the New World. We’ll start in 1947 with a crowded school gymnasium bursting with unleashed rancor.
Right off the start, a man at the lectern incited the crowd: “All of a sudden we seem to have a racial problem in South Park. Well, let me tell you than no (n-word) will get in South Park as long as I live.”
People shouted in support as all eyes turned to Esther Brown. She wasn’t ready for this. All she had done was make inquiries as to why the children of her black maid could not attend the district’s new school.
But she knew she had to get up and say something.
“Look, I’m just a Kansas housewife,” she said nervously. “I don’t represent these people, but I’ve seen the conditions of their school. I know none of you would want your children educated under such circumstances.
“They’re not asking for integration, just a fair shake.”
Seemed reasonable. It was met with jeers, yells and name-calling (yes, that one). An angry, red-faced woman hit Brown with an umbrella.
Next came the phone calls, threats to burn down her house, a wooden cross set aflame in her yard.
If those were meant to intimidate, they failed. From that point on, 29-year-old Esther Swirk Brown was ready to fight.
She grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Kansas City, the daughter of Russian immigrants. Her father was a watchmaker. Her mother died of cancer when she was 10.
Perhaps influenced by her father, who was active in left-leaning labor movements, she picketed with striking garment workers during the Great Depression while still in high school.
After World War II, she and her husband, Paul Brown, an Army Air Corps veteran, and their two young children moved to Merriam. Through her maid, Helen Swan, she learned that the South Park district had recently completed construction of a $90,000 school for 222 white kids.
Swan’s children were among the 44 black children who would attend the old Walker School, which had poor heating, a leaky basement and outhouses. Brown asked the school board about the disparity, especially as all parents paid taxes for construction of the new school.
She was told that if she wanted improvements for Walker School, she should try to raise private donations. In the meantime, the board said, the district would provide new light bulbs at Walker.
Then came the meeting in the gymnasium.
Brown encouraged black parents to form an NAACP chapter. They hired an attorney. On April 9, 1948, Brown, Swan and others attended another board meeting and demanded that black children be allowed to attend the new school.
The board quickly passed new regulations — essentially, gerrymandering — to establish two school districts. Officials insisted race did not come into the discussion. But some black students had to walk past the new school to get to the old one.
On May 25, 1948, the black students sued the school district. In September, Brown told the Kansas NAACP convention that desegregation should be a top priority.
“Because until Jim Crow is abolished, the words democracy, freedom and justice used so freely to support our foreign policy will ring hollow throughout the world,” she said.
An editorial in The Kansas City Call said of Brown: “The Johnson County leader stated we must be as stubborn in our devotion to a principle as the abolitionists of a century ago — the times demand it, the defense of our county demands it.”
With the case pending, Brown hit roads to collect donations for the legal fight.
“If someone will put me up for the night, I have a story to tell,” she said.
During this time, the FBI began to investigate Brown.
Katie Keckeisen, curator of interpretation at the Johnson County Museum, called Brown “a self-professed troublemaker.”
“She just wasn’t going to take what she saw happening, and she wouldn’t stop until it ended,” Keckeisen said. “I love this woman.”
She provided The Star a copy of Brown’s FBI file.
The file details Brown’s visits to “Negro neighborhoods,” attempts to link Brown with communist groups and says she used her own money to start an NAACP chapter. She took personal abuse, including phone calls night and day “calling her names and threatening to burn her house down.”
On June 11, 1949, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the black students in Merriam. The justices ordered the district to not only improve Walker School, but to allow black students to attend either school.
Alfonso Webb, whose son was the lead plaintiff, credited Brown with leading the fight. It took a white woman, he said, because blacks were too scared.
“Scared from history, scared from experience, scared from not enough experience.”
Brown downplayed her role. “It was simply the right thing to do.”
In September, black students enrolled at South Park without incident.
Five years later, Brown helped organize the effort for Brown v. Board of Education. And for the rest of her life, she tirelessly advocated for social justice, including successfully challenging segregated swimming at Swope Park.
“I recall being among only a few white families who continued to swim there,” Tucker said. “My mother wasn’t always popular with neighbors and relatives.”
Mary Webb, sister of the plaintiff in the South Park case, said her parents always spoke admiringly of Brown.
“My mother always said she (Brown) worked hard, cared about what was happening and opened doors we would have never gotten through,” said Webb, who still lives in Merriam. “She just kept pushing this thing forward.”
Esther Brown died of cancer on May 24, 1970, in Buffalo, N.Y. She was 52.
At her funeral, a rabbi said, “We must carry on her work. If we would honor her memory, we must find the strength to continue the work to which she was so devoted.”
And in a tribute that appeared in the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, Sidney Lawrence, director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau, invoked a chapter in Deuteronomy that dealt with heaven and earth, life and death, and the blessing and the curse.
“To the very end, Esther gave meaning beyond interpretation to that commandment — choose life. This is the final lesson of Esther Brown’s all too brief sojourn with us — choose life.”
Years later, according to a story that ran in The Star, Paul Brown pushed for FBI files that detailed how unidentified informants had accused Esther Brown of being a communist.
An FBI agent wrote in 1951: “She denies that she is a communist or that she has ever been a communist and (says) that she was only fighting what she considered to be an injustice.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182