The Families Behind the Five School Cases That Influenced Brown v Board: 70 Years Later

This month marks the seventieth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board, declaring the racial segregation of children in American public schools unconstitutional. To honor this milestone, we are launching a renewed special Untold Stories of Brown v. Board microsite. This platform is dedicated to spotlighting the often-overlooked students, parents, and plaintiffs who united six decades ago to challenge the notion of “separate but equal.”

Presenting a concise outline of the project now accessible at The74Million.org/Brown70: In the legal landscape of America, the simple phrase “et al.,” denoting “and others,” obscures the identities and narratives of regular individuals seeking justice for past injustices. Employed in class-action lawsuits to represent multiple unnamed plaintiffs, these four letters consign men, women, and children to an almost invisible legal realm, obscuring their personal stories.

In the case of Oliver Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, these four letters minimized the experiences of families who took considerable risks to participate in five pivotal class-action litigations nationwide. These five legal battles — Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Briggs v. Elliott, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Belton (Bulah) v. Gebhart, and Bolling v. Sharpe — were later combined by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although the name Oliver Brown receives recognition, the names and accounts of these other pioneering individuals have largely remained obscure, obscured by four insignificant letters.

However, a diverse group of Brown v. Board plaintiffs and their descendants, convened by Cheryl Brown Henderson, the founding president of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence, and Research, and daughter of Oliver Brown, aim to change this narrative. By recounting their experiences of oppression, quest for justice, and eventual triumph, these individuals hope to shed light on their often-overlooked roles. Five years ago, we contributed to the launch of Henderson’s book Recovering Untold Stories: An Enduring Legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision, and today we are excited to reintroduce our digital companion that delves into this significant chapter of history. This platform not only delves into the individual cases’ histories but also features video testimonies with family members linked to the original lawsuits. Explore the complete archive at The74Million.org/Brown70.

Also deserving attention today: An enlightening excerpt from the book concerning a broader initiative to broaden our historical comprehension. From South Carolina to Virginia, from the District of Columbia to Delaware, Brown Henderson narrates the narratives and individuals behind the five pivotal Brown lawsuits that underwent appeals, introducing the families who bravely stood for justice and the legal maneuvers that catapulted Brown v. Board, et al. to the apex court. Dive deeper into all the cases right here.

Three other noteworthy facets to explore and share on today’s Brown v. Board site: 

R. R. Moton High School Cheerleaders. Front Row: T. Allen, V. Bigger, M. Dennis Back Row: J. Stokes, M. Goode, L. Branch, B. Zabresky, M. West. (Courtesy of Recovering Untold Stories: An Enduring Legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision)

1. Firsthand Accounts From Those Engaged in History

In Recovering Untold Stories, Brown Henderson spotlights lesser-known families involved in the consolidated Brown v. Board lawsuit and showcases the perspectives of descendants on why their families took a stand, the repercussions they confronted, and the enduring impact of that decision. Explore our comprehensive collection of testimonials — including this account from J.A. Stokes (above), who spearheaded a student strike in Virginia alongside his twin sister. Reflecting on their first meeting, he recalls, “Our first meeting took place on the hard cinderblock bleachers that served as part of our athletic field. The four of us — Barbara Johns, Carrie Stokes, Irene Taylor and I — were the founding members. With this meeting, we launched one of most influential civil rights movements in the state of Virginia. In my view, we jump-started our own Manhattan Project.” Witness all our testimonials.

2. View the Video Testimonies

Alongside the aforementioned book excerpts, we have also relaunched several in-depth video interviews with key family members and external experts reflecting on the five cases that shaped Brown v. Board. Discover all the video highlights here — including Deborah Dandridge (above), who was in grade school in Topeka, Kansas, when the verdict was announced. In a 2019 video, she contemplates the groundbreaking ruling and the activism that led to the consolidation of five cases before the Supreme Court, emphasizing that “it’s the youth that will make progress in our democracy.” Watch all the oral histories.

3. Free Download of the Book

In addition to our case summaries, testimonials, and videos, you can also access the complete book: . Simply click “Download the Book.”

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