World

Linda Brown, Kansas schoolgirl at heart of landmark desegregation ruling, dead at 76

Linda Brown, the Kansas schoolgirl who was at the heart of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing racial segregation in American public schools, has died at age 76.

U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawed racial segregation in education

Linda Brown Smith stands in front of the Sumner School in Topeka, Kan in 1964. The refusal of the public school to admit Brown in 1951, then nine years old, because she is black, led to the Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the "separate but equal" clause and mandated that schools nationwide must be desegregated. (Associated Press)

Linda Brown, the Kansas schoolgirl who was at the heart of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing racial segregation in American public schools, has died at age 76.

Brown died on Sunday in her hometown of Topeka, Kan., the state capital, Robin Bruce, administrator for the Peaceful Rest Funeral Chapel in Topeka, told Reuters on Monday. Bruce said she was not at liberty to furnish further information on the circumstances of the death.

Brown's father, Oliver Brown, who died in 1961, was the named plaintiff in the case brought on his daughter's behalf and combined with several similar lawsuits challenging the "separate but equal" doctrine underpinning segregation in U.S. schools.

Topeka's former Sumner School was all-white when he tried to enroll the family. He became lead plaintiff in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court that ended school segregation.

Linda's sister, Cheryl Brown Henderson, founding president of The Brown Foundation, confirmed the death to The Topeka Capital-Journal. She declined comment from the family.

Linda Brown, right, and her two children pose for a photo in their home in Topeka, Kan. Brown has died at age 76. Peaceful Rest Funeral Chapel of Topeka confirmed she died Sunday. (Associated Press)

"Her legacy is not only here but nationwide," Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis said. "The effect she had on our society would be unbelievable and insurmountable."

The landmark case was brought before the Supreme Court by the NAACP's legal arm to challenge segregation in public schools. It began after several black families in Topeka were turned down when they tried to enroll their children in white schools near their homes. The lawsuit was joined with cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that separating black and white children was unconstitutional because it denied black children the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law. "In the field of public education, the doctrine of `separate but equal' has no place," Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote. "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

"We are to be grateful for the family that stood up for what is right," said Democratic state Rep. Annie Kuether of Topeka. "That made a difference to the rest of the world."

In 2014, on the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling, Michelle Obama spoke at a high school graduation in Topeka. "The truth is that Brown versus Board of Ed isn't just about our history, it's about our future," she said.

Michelle Obama speaks during Topeka Public Schools Senior Recognition Program in Topeka, Kan., May 16, 2014. 'The truth is that Brown versus Board of Ed isn’t just about our history, it’s about our future,' she said. (Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

With files from The Associated Press and CBC News