The University of Wisconsin-Platteville School of Education along with the Pioneers Unite campaign hosted a day-long event to honor the 65th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. The event was called “The Relevance of Brown v. Board of Education in 21st Century Rural America with Cheryl Brown Henderson”, and Henderson was present to answer questions and have a conversation with the campus and community.
Henderson is one of the three daughters of the late Reverend Oliver L. Brown and sister to Linda Brown. Henderson is also the founder of The Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, as well as the owner of Brown & Associates, Educational Consulting Firm. Since the start of The Brown Foundation, more than 100 minority students have received scholarships, awards have been presented to local and state government leaders, national libraries have been established for children in low-income communities, curriculum has been established around the Brown v. Board of Education case for educators across the country and sponsored programs have been given to thousands of people.
The event began with a question and answer session with Henderson in Lundeen Lecture Hall. The session was open to all students, and the lecture hall was a standing room only. Some of the students from ethnic studies courses came with prepared questions, and they began the question and answer session.
The first question regarded Brown v. Board of Education and how the case has impacted Henderson. Henderson’s response seemed to surprise the audience, but she said that there are many myths in the textbook history of Brown v. Board of Education. Henderson explained that 99.9% of what students learn is not true. The case was started by the NAACP, it was not something her father came up with, and there were multiple communities who supported the action taking place.
Henderson went on to explain that her family was not the only one involved in the fight against segregated schools. There were eleven school integration cases in Kansas, the first case took place in 1849, and the Brown v. Board of Education case took place in 1954.
“There were nine families who had already signed on for the Topeka case, and there were thirteen in total. We were not fighting for the quality of teachers or the quality of schools, but we were fighting for the violation of the 14th Amendment,” Henderson said.
She went on to explain that this is one of the main reasons she refuses to do interviews with reporters. Henderson wants the other plaintiffs to have an opportunity to share their voice and spread their knowledge of the case.
“As a future educator, I hope to share the historical accuracy. History needs to be right. She [Henderson] said multiple times that online the ‘facts’ are not always true and there are a lot of [misconceptions] circulating through. I like the fact that she is here on campus to set everything right, and straight and true,” senior history major Olivia Kirby said.
Another student asked what other cases Henderson thought were needed to improve our society. Immediately, Henderson responded with mass shootings. She said that she was, and everyone should be, very concerned with these.
“It is okay not to like everyone…It is human nature. It is okay. What is not okay is to act on it in harmful ways,” Henderson said.
She also said that police brutality, economic inequalities and environmental justice issues need to acknowledged to help change our society. And flowing into the next question with ease, Henderson gave advice for teachers in mostly white schools. She emphasized that teachers must know and teach the diversity that is in their classrooms. She encouraged them to find out what ethnicities are in their room and run with that. Henderson said that we do our white students a disservice when we don’t include them in a multicultural education.
“I think the conversations about multi-culturalism and diversity are so important on our campus. We are mostly white, from rural areas, and we don’t really have a lot of opportunities for diversity. If we don’t know each other, we can’t have conversations and learn about each other. I think this is a great opportunity to start the conversations. Are we going to solve everything tonight? Absolutely not, but it is an opportunity to start talking and thinking in a different way,” Associate Professor and Assistant Director of the School of Education Dr. Jennifer Collins said.
After answering a few more questions on her mother’s involvement in the case, the ways in which she stood up for herself and if she ever felt like giving up, the question and answer session wrapped up.
“I think that it is such a cool event to actually see Ms. Brown [Henderson] here. It is almost like we have a fictional person that we have heard about and talked about, but we are now able to interact with her on a one-on-one basis. It is really cool to actually be a part of this living history, something that is so important, especially with it being the 65th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education,” junior women, gender and sexuality studies major Jason Roth said.
Later in the day, the School of Education arranged for a conversation with Henderson, Chancellor Dennis Shields, the campus and the community. Collins gave an opening speech introducing Henderson and Chancellor Shields.
“To introduce this conversation is someone who has also been at the forefront of inequality in education…Before coming to UW-Platteville, he [Chancellor Shields] was involved in a landmark decision himself. In 1997, Chancellor Shields was working in the University of Michigan Law School Admissions Office when a white student was denied admission. She sued for discrimination, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Grutter v. Bollinger ruling stated that the Michigan Law School had a compelling interest in promoting class diversity,” Collins said.
Collins continued, stating that Chancellor Shields works hard to promote equality in education and a more inclusive campus climate at UW-Platteville.
“It doesn’t have to be about race. Yes, it [Brown v. Board of Education] was about race, but it was also about fairness and access. We have issues with funding and poverty, and schools are not equal in rural communities, either,” Collins said. “Yes, the racial issue is what [Brown v. Board of Education] was founded on, but when we talk about access to recourses, our poor rural communities are struggling with the same things. That is what I was hoping this conversation would bring about for the students. That big idea that it is about race but in some cases, [Brown v. Board of Education] was much bigger than that.”
Chancellor Shields gave a welcome speech to the audience and congratulated Collins on her promotion to director of the School of Education starting in July. Chancellor Shields explained that one of the biggest motivators for him to attend law school was the decision of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision.
The conversation started out with Chancellor Shield asking Henderson what the message was that she was hoping to deliver through the outcome of this case.
“In terms of messaging, I always like to convey the importance of your involvement, as individuals, in our democracy…What I hope you hear as I respond to dialogue and questions is that, in this moment in time, the history of our country is happening on our watch. I hope you understand how important it is, as my parents did, your responsibility in change that we all talk about. It won’t happen unless we participate,” Henderson said.
Henderson went on to talk about the importance of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education because, according to historians, an event does not become historic until 50 years have passed. She said as she travels the country, many people will ask what it feels like to be connected to the history of such a significant event.
“My response was truthful. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And what I meant was that by the time I was born, my father had already volunteered to be a part of the class of plaintiffs, and because of that, Brown v. Board of Education has been all I have known. I have no pre- and post-Brown comparison,” Henderson said.
It wasn’t until college, Henderson said, that she really started to pay attention to the Brown case. She did not want to be singled out because of the attachment to her family. She said that when the case would be talked about in her classroom, she would find any way possible to avoid being asked about it.
After realizing that she did not know the answers to many of the questions that people were asking her, she started doing detailed research in the libraries to get those answers.
What Henderson found was that many people did not know. This led to misinformation in a lot of textbook and online sources, particularly the lack of mention of the other plaintiffs and their stories. One of the messages she took away from this that she wanted to share with the group was to write their own stories.
“If you don’t tell your own story, somebody else will. And when they tell it, it won’t resemble you. I say that because Brown is really the perfect case that shows how things can be determined by others and they don’t resemble what happened,” Henderson said.
She went on to say that the internet has not been kind to the Brown case because a lot of myths have been spread about it. To tell the real story of Brown v. Board of Education, Henderson has worked with the other plaintiffs to create a book that compiles short essays about the experiences with the case. The book will be released in a few months, and it is titled “Recovering Untold Stories: An Enduring Legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision.”
After discussing her life growing up in Kansas and how the misconceptions have impacted the way she views education, Henderson discussed the idea of multicultural education. Henderson said that we do white students a disservice by not talking about diversity, not just including people of color.
The conversation ended with Henderson and Chancellor Shields talking about the idea of opting out. Chancellor Shields said that white people have the option to opt-in or out of a situation, but people of color do not have the opportunity to opt-out. We will never stop learning about race.