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An appreciation: Zelma Henderson

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Before there was “the achievement gap” and “No Child Left Behind” and all the present-day buzzwords and fixes for what’s wrong with public education in America, there was Zelma Henderson, the substandard schools to which her children and generations of other black children were relegated, and the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kansas outlawing segregation in the nation’s public schools.

Those new and old education signposts are most assuredly connected, in much the same way that opposite legacies, of bountiful opportunity, high academic achievement and expectations, reach from one generation to the next, until they are ingrained. Present-day reminders of the time before the 1954 Brown decision often come in Editorial Board interviews with school board candidates, which usually feature discussion of the achievement gap, the distance between higher-performing white students and under-performing minorities, as well as much commiserating over unfunded mandates, including spending to address the performance shortcomings rooted in our long history of educational inequality.

And there are more explicit reminders, as in Tuesday’s passing of Henderson at age 88. The hairdresser from Kansas was the last surviving Topeka-based plaintiff in Brown, which combined several states’ segregation challenges. In 1950, she joined the litigation on behalf of her two children, who were bused to all-black schools across town. Even before the Supreme Court said so, Henderson knew that “separate but equal” was untenable, a farce. She had attended desegregated schools in western Kansas. “I wanted my children to know all races like I did,” Henderson said in a 2004 interview with The Associated Press. “It means a lot to a person’s outlook on life. No inferiority complex at all, that’s what I wanted for my children as far as race was concerned.”

Generations of Americans, very many of them still catching up, owe Henderson a debt of gratitude for her determination and resolve.

A Journal News editorial


Written by Symphony

May 25, 2008 at 6:48 pm

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