It sounded like such a perfect fit: The daughter of the lead plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case was picked to lead a National Park Service site in a former all-black school in Topeka, Kan., where the groundbreaking case was born.


It sounded like such a perfect fit: The daughter of the lead plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case was picked to lead a National Park Service site in a former all-black school in Topeka, Kan., where the groundbreaking case was born.

But just six months later, Cheryl Brown Henderson resigned, moved to a different office in the building and resumed leading a foundation she started to tell the history of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Now, almost a year later, the park service is kicking her foundation out of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, and the results of a government-commissioned audit into its finances are being released this week.

The demise of the partnership has created tension at the park site where both sides still share space.

"It's very awkward," acknowledged David Smith, superintendent of the site for the past three months. "I'll be honest. The staff has had a really hard time."

The first hint of trouble came over the summer when a federal investigation found Brown Henderson had failed to limit her involvement with the foundation while she led the National Park site. That involvement was seen as a conflict of interest because the investigators determined the foundation gets more than three-quarters of its funding from the park service and employed her sister and boyfriend.

Brown Henderson told The Topeka Capital-Journal that the situation "harkens back to the time when people of color were living lives filled with anxiety. I'm not the first to be on the receiving end of what I describe as bullying, harassment and intimidation." She spoke only briefly with The Associated Press, saying the situation was "very strange" before referring questions to her attorney, Pedro Irigonegaray.

"The Brown Foundation's presence adds a great deal to the park," he said. "And clearly having the opportunity to speak with the daughter of one of the plaintiffs I think is a tremendous benefit. It's sad to me and disturbing that that is no longer going to be available. I wish it were not so."

Brown Henderson's foundation, officially called the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, has been operating rent-free in the second floor of the National Park site since 2004. She hadn't even started her job as superintendent of the site in the summer of 2010 when concerns were raised about a conflict of interest between the new position and her foundation job.

Ultimately, a recusal agreement was drafted because of the $300,000 in annual funding the foundation receives from the park service and concerns about Brown-Henderson's close ties to its staff, including its chief financial officer. Brown Henderson called him a friend; the investigators said they had a "romantic" relationship.

Despite the recusal agreement, Brown Henderson remained involved with the foundation, investigators found. The report said Brown Henderson even tried to help the foundation draft a response to the federal investigation.

The report also found fault with the recruitment of Brown Henderson, noting the recruitment files were "disorganized and incomplete," that human resources personnel provided "conflicting and confusing statements" and an alleged endorsement from then-U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback "created an appearance that Brown Henderson was provided an unfair preference." Normally such positions are awarded to current federal employees. Brownback, now the governor of Kansas, declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

The U.S. Attorney's office in Topeka declined to prosecute the case but the report offered no explanation, the report said.

In 1950, Brown Henderson's late father, the Rev. Oliver Brown, tried to enroll his older daughter, Linda Brown, in third grade at a white school. When his request was denied, he joined 12 other black families that sued in federal district court in Topeka. Other school desegregation cases from Virginia, South Carolina, Delaware and Washington, D.C., also were appealed to the Supreme Court and argued at the same time.

But because the Brown name was listed first, for many, the face of the case was Linda Brown. She was forced to attend the segregated Monroe School 20 blocks from her home, even though the all-white school was just five blocks away.

Brown Henderson, 60, was too young to be part of the case as a child. But as an adult, she thought the closed school that Linda Brown and another plaintiff child attended would be the perfect place to interpret the story of the decision. She organized a group of volunteers that began to plead its case.

Smith said he doesn't want to diminish what Brown Henderson did.

"I don't think it should at all tarnish the Brown family's legacy and what they did 50 years ago to fight for civil rights or their legacy in helping to create the park," he said. "Those legacies should stand no matter what. But times change. Time marches on and we need to guarantee the public's trust."