Leola Montgomery is the widow of the Rev. Oliver Brown, the lead plaintiff in the 1954 landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
Montgomery, who is scheduled to be in Wichita on Saturday to receive a special award, doesn’t look one bit of 97. Nor does she act like it.
"I’m fine, I feel good, I don’t have any pain," she says. "And I still do all of my housework and cooking and up and down the steps and laundry and driving and all that."
Montgomery loves to travel, and has taken trips with two of her daughters, the late Linda Brown Thompson — the face of the Brown v. Board case — and her youngest daughter, Cheryl Brown Henderson, the founder of the Brown Foundation in Topeka. The three would travel to speak about the significance of the Supreme Court case.
"I remember one year we went to Cincinnati, so I went with them," Montgomery says. "When the lady got ready to introduce them, she didn’t know I was there, and so she said, 'The Brown girls are going to be our speakers today ... I’m sure their mother would be here, but I’m sure she’s gone.'
"I jumped up and I said, 'Oh, no! Here I am! ' She said, 'Oh my God! ... Ma'am, I’m so sorry. Oh, my God. I’m so glad to have you!'"
Montgomery says she gets the same reaction when she speaks to students around Topeka, where she lives.
"They’re so surprised because they just knew I’m gone, you know, that’s been so long ago," she says. "But I said, 'Oh, no! Ms. Brown is still around, still kicking,' and they laughed."
When Montgomery goes to schools, she shares her personal story. Her husband got involved in the civil rights case at the insistence of Charles Scott, a friend and a lawyer.
“He said you need to do that for your child,” she says.
Brown would be the only male plaintiff. He went home to talk it over with his wife.
"We discussed it, and in talking, I said, 'I think you ought to do that because think about Linda, you know?'" Montgomery says. "No blacks and whites could go to the same school, and my children had to walk five blocks to catch the school bus and then ride two and a half miles to Monroe school."
Segregation was something the children in their racially diverse neighborhood couldn’t understand.
"They would come in and ask, 'Miss Brown, how come Linda can’t go to school?' and I would say the color of our skin," she says. "I had to explain to them what was going on ...
"Those kids came over to our home, ate meals, slept in our bed with my kids and all, even before all this was all handed down."
The Supreme Court decision was released on May 17, 1954. Montgomery says she was doing the family ironing that day when a television show was interrupted by a news flash. There had been a unanimous ruling that separating children in public schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional.
"And I said, 'Oh my God,' and tears came to my eyes. I could not wait for my family to get home, so when they got home and I delivered the message," she says. "Oh, we hugged and cried."
The Brown v. Board decision was called the most important action of its kind since the Emancipation Proclamation. The case brought attention to Topeka, leading to the establishment of the Brown Foundation with noted speakers including civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
"She was just as sweet as she could be," Montgomery says of Parks. "[She would] give you a hug and say, 'Come on, honey, and give me some sugar!'
"That’s what she’d say ... and give you a big old hug and say, 'I’m so glad to meet you.'"
In addition to Parks, Montgomery had friendships with other civil rights leaders, including Coretta Scott King, and four U.S. presidents: both Bushes, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
" ... And when we went with Clinton, oh my God, you would have thought he’s known us forever," Montgomery says. "They had a line for you to go down and meet everybody and everybody got a kiss from the president and his wife and the vice president and his wife."
When it comes to the Brown v. Board decision, Montgomery says it’s important to remember one thing.
"We fought for the rights of all people, not only for people of our color, but all people to have the rights to go to school," she says.