Date of Award

Summer 2023

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation



First Advisor

Patricia Sullivan


Attorney Elisha Scott’s reputation for fighting injustice grew so large he received letters addressed only, “Colored Lawyer, Topeka, Kansas.” He was born in obscurity in 1890, but his death made national news in 1963. Scott’s story may not be known at all if his name was not often listed as counsel in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that desegregated public schools. But it was his sons who filed the case and helped fight it from Topeka to the United States Supreme Court. He was never officially part of the legal team. He had, however, won a string of Kansas desegregation cases that paved the way for Brown. His legacy is not the Brown case but the hundreds of criminal and civil cases he won in the decades before Brown. This dissertation uses Scott’s story to examine the experience of African Americans from enslavement to the civil rights revolution. It argues that between World War I and World War II local African American lawyers like Scott constructed the foundation later civil rights gains stood upon. The story of his family leaving the South and achieving success in Topeka demonstrates what African Americans could achieve even in Jim Crow America. But his experiences with horrific violence and racism demonstrate how difficult it was for African Americans to first achieve human rights and later win civil rights. Elisha Scott is at the center of the story, but it is a family story beginning with enslaved relatives in Tennessee and ending with the family’s efforts to make the promise of the Brown decision a reality.


© 2023, Jeffery Scott Williams

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