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Obituaries / Zelma Henderson

Last plaintiff in landmark 1954 school desegregation court case

May 22, 2008|From the Associated Press

Zelma Henderson, the last surviving plaintiff in the Brown vs. Board of Education case in Topeka, Kan., which led to the historic 1954 Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation in public schools, has died. She was 88.

Henderson died Tuesday in Topeka, six weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Her son, Donald, said she wasn't physically imposing, but when she was passionate about something, "She was just fire."

On behalf of her children in 1950, Henderson signed on to the litigation challenging Topeka's segregated schools. In all, 13 black parents in Topeka, including the Rev. Oliver Brown, took part in the federal case.

The plaintiffs lost in U.S. District Court, but the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, along with similar cases from Virginia, South Carolina and Delaware.

The high court's unanimous ruling overturning school segregation came May 17, 1954.

As a child in the 1920s and '30s, Henderson had attended desegregated schools in the rural western Kansas town of Oakley, where her parents farmed. She was disgusted when she learned that her own children would be required to attend segregated schools in Topeka.

They were forced to attend a school that was 10 blocks farther from their home than a whites-only school.

"I wanted my children to know all races like I did," Henderson told the Associated Press in 2004. "It means a lot to a person's outlook on life. No inferiority complex at all -- that's what I wanted for my children as far as race was concerned."

The Brown v. Board National Historic Site is operated by the National Park Service in a formerly segregated school building.

"Her passing is a rather large milestone in the history of the case and that period of our history," said Dennis Vasquez, superintendent of the site. "It puts it in more of a historical perspective because there are no longer any living plaintiffs in the Topeka case."

Though Henderson was the last surviving Topeka plaintiff, there still are some surviving plaintiffs from the other state cases consolidated with Brown.

The Supreme Court also upheld a related challenge involving segregation in the District of Columbia the same day Brown was decided.

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