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Rev. Oliver Leon Brown
July 2, 1903 - June 21, 1961
Civil Rights Activist


Oliver Brown was the plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of 1954. The Court overturned the doctrine of separate but equal for public schools.

Brown was a welder in the shops of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, an assistant pastor at his local church, and an African American. He was convinced to join the lawsuit by Scott, a childhood friend. Brown's daughter Linda, a third grader, had to walk six blocks to her school bus stop to ride to Monroe Elementary, her segregated black school one mile (1.6 km) away, while Sumner Elementary, a white school, was seven blocks from her house.

Rev. Oliver Leon Brown made a living for his wife and three children as a minister at St. Marks A.M.E. and as a railroad welder in Topeka. When he was only 32 years old, Oliver attempted to enroll his 8-year-old daughter, Linda, at Sumner Elementary, a white school close to his home. At the time Linda was attending Monroe Elementary which required a five mile bus ride, plus a walk through the unsafe railroad yard just to get there.

When his attempt failed, he and 12 other parents in Topeka filed suit on behalf of 20 African-American children who were denied access to white elementary schools. Of 13 families involved in the case, Oliver was chosen as the lead plantiff because he was the only man. Some say it was chosen alphabetically, but if that were the case plantiff Darlene Brown would have been first. Many say it is interesting that his name is associated with the case because he was no more involved than other parents.

"The Brown decision is named for an African-American man who in 1950 was a young parent, only 32 years old. Although his participation was almost coincidental, the fact remains that it is his name that is attached to what is said to be one of the most pivotal events in U.S. History. This unknowing icon was my father," said Cheryl Brown Henderson, Oliver's youngest daughter, in November 2000 in The Legacy of Brown Forty Six Years Later.

Oliver died in 1961, ten years after the suit was filed and seven years after the United States Supreme Court decision. Since Oliver died before the media sophistication of court television, he only participated in one televised interview. It would take 20 years for the court's decision to be fully implemented, and Oliver died before he was able to see what effect he made on school systems in the United States.

Oliver's youngest daughter, Cheryl, founded The Brown Family Foundation in his name with a goal of comemmorating the anniversary, the importance of the court decision, and to honor the people involved in the case. The Foundation provides scholarships to minority students, establishes programs to emphasize diversity and sponsors performances, lectures, and conferences to encourage understanding of different cutures.

By Jennifer Torrens

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