Lesser-known black history figures found at Brown Museum

Trista Pinick

The names Martin Luther King Jr., JFK and Malcom X stand out historically as people who fought for right and equality among races.

However, there were many others less renown in history who helped change public opinion and challenged the ideas of equality in their day.

Victoria Benson, whose mother was a plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education case, has some people in mind.

“McKinley Burnett from Topeka. I think Cheryl Brown Henderson…Debra Dandridge, who stands behind the scenes as an archivist and speaker,” said Benson, who also holds the position of being the first black person to enroll and graduate from Stewart’s Beauty Academy.

Benson went on to list her mother, Maude Lawton, and grandmother, Dora Sudduth, as role models who’d had an impact on civil rights.

When Benson was in second grade attending an all black school, Brown v. Board went to the Supreme Court.

“Separate, but equal almost worked in Topeka because we had fine schools. They were equal to the white schools and I’ve never felt inferior, and I think that’s because of the way I was raised at home and in the neighborhood,” said Benson.

The case bearing Oliver Brown’s name was a matter of principle in Topeka, not a result of second-rate physical conditions. Benson said the experiences of racial inequality were nothing compared to what was happening in the South, although she did recall being told of an incident before the trial went to court.

“Marcus Brunett, the son of McKinley Burnett, did tell me that a group of people came down the alley in a car calling out racial slurs and they were frightened by that,” said Benson.

McKinley Burnett was the chapter president of NAACP at that time and also one of the founding minds behind the challenge to the idea of “separate but equal.”

Although the main issue of the case people recognize is the inequality and segregation in schools, there were other places where black people were treated differently in the community.

“They had a special section at the theater, the peanut gallery, but that never bothered me because all my friends were sitting there and that’s just what you do. At Bobo’s Drive-in you could take your food out in a sack, but you couldn’t sit at the counter,” said Benson, “but they never called me out by name or anything like that.”

Although she didn’t personally suffer from attacks growing up, her mother had moved to Kansas because of persecution.

Benson’s grandfather and great uncle were half German and had passed for white in California. However, when the people in the town found out the family were black, her great uncle was killed and the rest of the family moved to Kansas to escape persecution.

The same family later found themselves becoming part of the landmark segregation case. After the trial decision however, Benson’s school continued to be all black.

“I think that the judge wanted to make sure that it was a slow integration and not something that happened all at once. That might have caused a riot,” said Benson.

She said that by the time she went to an integrated high school it wasn’t a problem to have different races taught in the same classrooms.

Today, Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of Oliver Brown, continues her father’s and his contemporaries’ work for equality between the races. She co-founded the Brown Foundation for Educational Equality, Excellence and Research here in Topeka. The National Education Association has honored her for continuing the legacy of the Brown v. Board.

The Brown v. Board of Education Exhibit hosts numerous other examples, and the Web site brownvboard.org offers information on the case, as well as provides other places to look for enlightenment.