Civil rights activist
At the time of her death in 2008, Zelma Henderson was the last surviving plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated schools in the United States. As a young girl in rural Kansas during the 1920s, Henderson attended an integrated elementary school, and she became a plaintiff in the landmark class-action lawsuit because she wanted her own children to have the same opportunity. "None of us knew that this case would be so important and come to the magnitude it has," she said in 1994, according to an obituary in the New York Times. "What little bit I did, I feel I helped the whole nation."
Henderson was born Zelma Hurst on February 29, 1920, in Colby, Kansas, the seat of Thomas County in the western part of the state. Her parents were farmers who eventually moved to nearby Oakley, which had a few more black households than Colby. Oakley was later the inspiration for the fictional town of Jericho in the CBS television drama of the same name that depicts the citizens of a remote town adjusting to life in the aftermath of nuclear attacks on the United States.
In the era before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, states and communities were free to establish their own laws and rules governing public education for African-American students. During Henderson's girlhood, Kansas law stipulated that communities with a population of 15,000 or more had to have separate elementary schools for black children; middle schools and high schools were integrated. Both Colby and Oakley, where Henderson grew up, had populations far less than 15,000, and therefore she went all the way through school in the same classes as the white children in her neighborhood.
Henderson moved to Topeka, the Kansas state capital, in 1940, and entered the Kansas Vocational School, a blacks-only institution. She trained as a cosmetologist but also became a skilled typist, and though she searched for an office job she was unable to land one because of her race. In 1943 she married Andrew Henderson, and began a family that soon included two children, Donald and Vicki. She ran an at-home business as a hairdresser in their house on N.E. Jefferson Street in North Topeka. It was only when Donald, her older child, was almost of school age that she realized that because of the state law her children would be riding a bus to an all-black school, not attending the one that was closest to their home. "I was quite surprised," she told Erin Adamson in the Topeka Capital Journal, "because in small cities, they integrated them and we got along fine together. And I could not see why they couldn't get along here, too."
Henderson was a member of the Topeka chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and in 1950 learned that the civil rights organization was planning to file a suit against the Topeka school board over segregation. In an interview in the 2004 book The Unfinished Agenda of Brown v. Board of Education, she recalled that "one of the attorneys asked me if I would be a plaintiff. I was glad to be involved because I didn't think it was right." Instructed to take her children to the nearby whites-only elementary school, Quincy Elementary, and enroll them there, she did so, and school officials denied the request.
From there Henderson signed on to the class-action suit filed on behalf of twenty African-American youngsters in Topeka by their parents. A Topeka rail yard worker and part-time minister, Oliver L. Brown, was one of the thirteen plaintiffs, along with Henderson, and it is his name that became part of the historic court case, which was filed in U.S. District Court in 1951. Henderson testified at that trial at the Topeka courthouse in June of 1951, recalling in the interview with Adamson that "it was kind of frightening and yet, when you're determined, you get a little more strength. They had to calm me down a time or two, but I made it through." The three-judge panel, however, rejected the plaintiffs' plea by citing the legal precedence set in the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which ruled that "separate but equal" schools and other public facilities did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The NAACP legal team appealed the judges' decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. It agreed to hear the Brown arguments in combination with several similar pending cases from other states. On May 17, 1954, the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously in favor of Henderson's two children and dozens more whose parents had filed suit on their behalf. "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place," Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in his decision. "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
With that ruling, the era of segregated public schools in America officially ended, though many states in the South posed legal challenges for years to come. The Brown v. Board of Education decision opened the door to further legal challenges elsewhere in the United States—and especially in the South—and is often cited as the day the civil rights movement began, along with Rosa Parks's act of resistance on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the following year.
By then, Henderson had returned to a quiet life with her family and community. She continued to work as a hairdresser, was active in her African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church as a deaconess, and was involved in the establishment of a Brown v. Board National Historic Site in a Topeka schoolhouse. Her husband died in 1971, and thirteen years later her daughter Vicki passed away. The sole element that separated Henderson from her neighbors and fellow churchgoers was the fact that she was regularly interviewed by journalists from across the United States when milestone anniversaries for Brown v. Board of Education occurred. In 2004, on the fiftieth anniversary, she was eighty-four years old and one of three surviving plaintiffs of the original thirteen Topeka parents. Within four years of that milestone, she was the last surviving plaintiff and was ill with pancreatic cancer. She died in Topeka on May 20, 2008, at the age of eighty-eight. Speaking at Henderson's funeral, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius said, "Let's promise to never forget the lessons of Zelma Henderson—that ordinary people, with moral courage and stamina can indeed change the world."
At a Glance …
Born Zelma Cleota Hurst on February 29, 1920, in Colby, KS; died of pancreatic cancer on May 20, 2008, in Topeka, KS; married Andrew Henderson, 1943; children: Donald, Vicki (died 1984). Religion: African Methodist Episcopal. Education: Trained as a cosmetologist at the Kansas Vocational School, early 1940s.
Career: Worked as a hairdresser.
Black Issues in Higher Education, James Anderson, and Dara N. Byrne, The Unfinished Agenda of Brown v. Board of Education, Diverse: Issues In Higher Education, 2004, pp. 141-42.
New York Times, May 12, 2004, p. B8; May 22, 2008, p. C12.
Topeka Capital Journal, May 11, 2003, p. B1; May 9, 2004, p. A12; May 28, 2008, p. 1.
"U.S. Supreme Court: Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)," Findlaw.com, http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=347&invol=483 (accessed October 26, 2008).
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