The Passing of History - Meeting Zelma Henderson

It seems almost fitting in a way. On the day the National Trust for Historic Preservation brings attention to saving a bricks-and-mortar piece of the Brown v. Board story, a living piece of that story lost her battle with cancer. I had the pleasure of meeting Zelma Henderson in 2004, while working on a documentary for the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board U.S. Supreme Court decision. I remember a tiny woman with big sparkling eyes and a smile to match. So full of life and living in her own home, you'd never know she was into her 80s. So unassuming and humble, you'd never know she helped launch what would become one of the most important cases of the civil rights era. We talked about the times in which she raised her children and the case with which she would become a part. I asked why, of all the plaintiffs, it was the wives and not the husbands - save Oliver Brown - who signed on. She said it was because the wives were homemakers and the husbands were breadwinners, and the men were threatened with losing their jobs if they made such a public stand. Zelma was proud of her role in the case. She became wistful at one point during the interview, describing the aftermath of the ruling. While Topeka remained calm, Zelma recalled seeing race riots in other parts of the country on the news and thinking, "What have I done?" She did the right thing, and she remained steadfast in that belief throughout her years. Zelma would live to be the last surviving Brown v. Board plaintiff. Her legacy, and that of all the plaintiffs, will live forever.

 

I'm including here a segment of a program produced in 2004 for the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision. It includes portions of my interview with Zelma as well as fellow plaintiff Vivian Scales, who passed away in 2005. Their stories will always stay with me.

 

 

 

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