There are a many heroes of Brown versus Topeka BOE: Thurgood Marshall, Atty. Charles Scott, Oliver Brown and his daughter Linda. While the Browns were the named plaintiffs, there were four other Topeka plaintiffs, all women: Zelma Henderson, Sadie Emanuel, Lucinda Todd and Lena Carper. Between the four ladies, there were five children: Vicki and Donald Henderson, James Emanuel, Nancy Todd, and Katherine Carper.
Katherine Carper played a special role in this historic case — she was the only one of the children called to testify in the case. It might have been because Carper was likely of the oldest of the six children. When the Supreme Court decision was handed down on May 17, 1954, Carper was finishing the sixth grade and next year who would attend a Topeka junior high school, and upper level Topeka schools were already integrated. Only Topeka elementary schools were segregated pre Topeka v BOE.
She gave her testimony in 2nd floor court room of the Federal Building in downtown Topeka. The first floor of the building housed the post office. She didn’t go into the court room unprepared, they told her what to expect. There would a be judge, a lawyer would who ask her questions and she was to tell the truth.
She did as she was told; answered the lawyer’s questions, but she didn’t understand why she was doing it, let alone begin to understand the significance of her testimony. In fact, only recently has 77-year-old, Katherine Caper Sawyer, begun to proudly acknowledge the role she played in American history.
As a young girl, Sawyer’s grandmother lived on the same street as Lucinda Todd, secretary of the Topeka NAACP. The Todd house was often the meeting place for the NAACP and all things civil rights in Topeka. Lucinda’s daughter Nancy was close to her age, so the girls played together, inside and outside the house. Sawyer says she remembers the Todd house being full of activity – meetings and discussions about things.
“People don’t understand, I was a kid. I didn’t know, understand, what they were talking about,” Sawyer explained.
Sawyer remembers her mother loading her up, along with Nancy and Lucinda Todd, and driving them to a “White” school, to see if they would let her enroll. Of course it was a test, a way to document the racism, and as expected, they were turned away.
Her next involvement with the case came when she was called to testify. The lawyers asked her to tell them about her bus ride to school.
Here’s Sawyer’s truth.
Even though there were two schools near my house – Randolph and Gage — I had to walk from my house to Gage Blvd that was four city blocks. There were mud streets with no payment and houses were few and far between. When it rained, you just stood out in it.
Mine was the longest ride. Maybe that’s why they asked me to testify. They were city buses, not school buses. There was one adult, the bus driver, and he couldn’t care less. He was White.
I was about the first person to get on the bus and we would wind all around, stopping and picking up kids. By the time we got to school the bus would be loaded, three or four of us in a seat. Kids who didn’t have a seat, just didn’t have a seat.
There were fights. Folks caused a lot of turmoil, but the bus driver didn’t care. He didn’t stop it.
“We didn’t question it. You just did what was normal and that was normal,” she added.
As the case advanced through the court system, Sawyer says she started to catch snippets of what was going
“I hear the Black teachers were going to lose their jobs. That’s what I knew, not the whole significance,” said Sawyer. “I remember being afraid my teachers were going to be mad at me”
For 60 years, she talked very little about the case or her role in it. Periodically, a reporter would show up and interview her mother, but Sawyer said she was never asked to talk about her role. She got married, raised four kids, and never told any of them anything about it.
Somehow her son Brian learned enough to become curious and started digging. By the time Michelle Obama came to Topeka in 2011, he had spread the word about his mom’s involvement far enough to get some attention.
“I don’t know who he spoke to our how he did it,’ but I wound up on that stage with her,” she said proudly.
Up until then, the case did play a significant role in her life of life, but now that the case is “history,” more attention is being paid to the Brown case and other civil rights break troughs.
So far, she’s given only a few interviews, but she’s beginning to grow more comfortable with her significant role in history.