Sadly, the United States has a long history of discrimination against many groups. While the term intersectionality wasn’t coined until 1989, there were some who already recognized that disadvantages and discrimination that seem specific to one group really overlap with how other groups are treated and limited by the dominant society. One of these people was a civil rights activist who fought for the rights of others as well as those within her own social groups.
Esther Swirk Brown was born Esther Swirk on April 25, 1917. Her family experienced discrimination and social harassment because they were Jewish Russians and recent immigrants. Her father was a leftish-leaning watchmaker, but her mother died when Brown was only 10 years old. By high school, Brown was on the picket lines with workers’ rights activists. Brown graduated from Paseo High School, then attended both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.
She married Paul Brown in 1943 while he was in the Army Air Corps. After the war, the couple and their two daughters moved to Merriam, Missouri, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. The family expanded with another daughter and son. They basically lived a normal businessman’s suburban life, complete with a black maid, Helen Swan. When a new school was built in nearby South Park, Brown learned her maid’s children would not be allowed to attend. At a school meeting in 1947 she asked why those children couldn’t attend, and that set off a racist response that included a physical assault. The 29-year-old housewife didn’t back down – in fact, she got involved.
That meeting led to what is probably the best known of her civil rights efforts related to the Kansas Supreme Court decision, Webb v. School District No. 90 in 1949. The case found that the Walker School in South Park, Kansas, was not up to the educational standards of the whites-only new school. Brown worked with the newly-formed local NAACP chapter and Kansas City Jewish Community Relations Bureau by fundraising, leading a boycott of the inferior school, and helping to coordinate other class space, including her own front room, for some of sister activist Corinthian Nutter’s class.
Brown turned her organizational talents and contacts to help fight other educational and social discrimination battles. She was sometimes called the “white Mrs. Brown” for her efforts related to the Supreme Court case Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954. Her family was supportive, even though they became targets of individuals, organizations, the local police force, and even the FBI. Her husband was fired from his family’s business because of her activism.
In 1957, Brown joined with other Jewish women to form the Panel of American Women in Kansas City, Missouri. The idea for an adult version of the Panel of Americans, formed in 1942, operating in the same fashion, with a panel of six people of different religious and racial identities who spoke about their experiences and then invited the audience to discuss the difficulties that the panelists had shared. Brown moderated the first public panel, and soon the group expanded to include men as well. By 1960, the organization had chapters in 22 cities, and by 1964 it had expanded so much that they incorporated and filed for tax-exempt educational status. The group is still around today in some cities, though the number of panelists varies from city to city or event to event.
For all of her work, Brown didn’t push to lead, but rather to aid those who were facing discrimination. She isn’t well known outside of local or state circles, but if you’d like your kids to learn more about her, consider this coloring page honoring her, put out by the KCHistory collection at the Kansas City Library.
On May 24, 1970, Brown died from breast cancer at the age of 54 in Buffalo, New York. Her husband, Paul, donated materials about her work to a few different libraries and historical archives as well as sharing his own memories about her work.