Perhaps one of the youngest legends of the civil rights movement, Katherine Louise Carper was a 10-year-old girl who lived with her mother Lena Carper in Topeka, Kansas. Though she lived in a neighborhood with white children and played with them outside of school every day, segregation was the law of the land and forced Katherine to make a harrowing trek to and from school each day totaling over eight hours.
Braving everything from rain to snow and temperatures ranging from frigid in the winter to sweltering in the summer, Katherine had to walk through the fields and down unpaved roads just to get to a main street where she would wait for the bus. With nowhere to sit and no shelter from severe weather conditions, Katherine was one of the first children to be picked up each day, but by the time the bus arrived at the school, children were standing in the aisle and sitting on each other’s laps due to overcrowding.1
Katherine and her mother were the first to sign onto the lawsuit that would eventually become Brown v. Board of Education at the urging of family friend Lucinda Todd. As Thurgood Marshall and the other LDF attorneys prepared for trial, they knew that testimony from one of the children involved in the class-action lawsuit would greatly help their case. When families were polled to see who might volunteer for the job, Katherine Carper Sawyer eagerly stepped up. According to Richard Kluger’s book Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality, Katherine loved playing the piano and was a natural performer.2 She was also one of the older children associated with the lawsuit and had one of the longest and most difficult routes to school each day. Her maturity and eloquence were valued by the attorneys, as any stumbling or hesitation while delivering her account or answering questions would be detrimental to their efforts.
In October of 1952, at the age of 10 years old, Katherine walked into what she described to be “the biggest room I’d ever seen with the most people in it”3 and took the stand to give her testimony in Brown v. Board of Education.
As a child, she didn’t fully realize the magnitude of what her effective testimony meant for the desegregation of schools or the civil rights movement. Looking back on the experience, she believes that her mother was just fighting for her to have a better education and quality of life. She doesn’t remember discussing the trial much with her mother in the years following and even as she went on to grow into adulthood and start a family, she rarely mentioned it to her children. In recent years, she has begun to stand up and be more vocal about what she did back then and what it means now. She encourages all young children to do what is right.
“Don’t let anyone bully you or push you aside, stand up for what you believe in.”
“When you see someone that is different than you, just talk to them.”
“I believe people are more alike than they are different.”
Katherine Carper Sawyer
HEAR HER VOICE
Hear Katherine Carper Sawyer describe her experience during the Brown v. Board of Education trial in an interview with the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.