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Wed, 04.25.1917

Esther S. Brown, Kansas City Activist born

EstherS. Brown

Esther Brown’s birth in 1917 is celebrated on this date. She was a white Jewish American civil rights activist.

Esther Swirk Brown was from Kansas City, MO. She attended Paseo High School, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University.  After her marriage in 1943, she filled the role of a typical Johnson County suburbanite until she learned of the terrible conditions for Black students not far from her home.  A comfortable white housewife, she was concerned with the choices that Black students had to attend school.

This was because she had a keen sense of brotherhood and social justice. The local school board had drawn up new boundaries in the South Park area so that another all-white school could be built.  Black students had been gerrymandered out of the new school attendance area, and were left with a very deteriorated, dangerous building with only two teachers and outdoor plumbing! Brown knew this violated an 1896 court ruling that required "separate but equal" facilities.  She assembled a legal team to file the Webb vs. Kansas case, named for the father of a Black South Park student. Thurgood Marshall, a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and later a U. S. Supreme Court Justice, assisted.

In 1949 the U. S. Supreme Court upheld Webb v. Kansas and African Americans entered South Park School; federal school integration was not mandated until 1954. Wholeheartedly aware of racial discrimination, Brown was active in many Jewish organizations, but went beyond her own ethnic circle.  She organized the Panel of American Women; speakers of various races and religions that became a national movement with 1,400 participants. Among her many awards was the 1969 Brotherhood Award from the Kansas City Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Esther Brown died in 1976. A plaque in a small park at 51st and England Street in Merriam, Kansas honors this civil rights crusader.


The Encyclopedia Britannica, Fifteenth Edition.
Copyright 1996 Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.
ISBN 0-85229-633-0

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