Article

(H)our History Lesson: Bringing together the Brown V. Board of Education Case

School buildings.
(From top to bottom: Sumner School, Monroe School, John Philip Sousa Junior High School, Robert R. Moton High School, Summerton High School, and Howard High School. National Historic Landmark and National Register photos.)

This short lesson was adapted by Katie McCarthy from the full-length Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan “Brown v. Board: Five Communities that Changed America.”

Grade Level Adapted For:

This lesson is intended for middle school learners, but can easily be adapted for use by learners of all ages.

Lesson Objectives:

Students will be able to....

  1. Describe the five cases that made up the Brown V. Board of Education Supreme Court Case.

  1. Evaluate the importance of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Case.

  1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

  1. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source.

Inquiry Question:

Examine the photos below. What do you see in these two pictures? What is different or similar between the two images? What do you think caused the differences?

Auditorium at Farmville High School, Farmville, Virginia. (Record Group 2, Records of the District Courts of the United States, 1865 – 1991 National Archives and Records Administration, Mid Atlantic Region)
Auditorium at Farmville High School, Farmville, Virginia. (Record Group 2, Records of the District Courts of the United States, 1865 – 1991 National Archives and Records Administration, Mid Atlantic Region)
Auditorium at Robert Morton High School, Farmville, Virginia. (Record Group 2, Records of the District Courts of the United States, 1865 – 1991 National Archives and Records Administration, Mid Atlantic Region)
Auditorium at Robert Morton High School, Farmville, Virginia. (Record Group 2, Records of the District Courts of the United States, 1865 – 1991 National Archives and Records Administration, Mid Atlantic Region)

Reading:

Introduction

The decades immediately after the Civil War offered freedom and promise for African Americans. However, the South attempted to reassert the control they lost as a result of the Civil War. Southern politicians began segregating (or separating) the races in all aspects of public life. This system of segregation and discrimination was nicknamed “Jim Crow.” This system took away many of the freedoms which African Americans experienced following the Civil War.1 During the 1890s the situation for African Americans became increasingly worse throughout the South. Race relations deteriorated, violence increased, and the many advances toward integration were virtually eliminated.

In 1892, a Black man named Homer Adolf Plessy was imprisoned for refusing to use the segregated train car assigned to African Americans. By refusing to do so, he violated a Louisiana law. Through a series of appeals, his case was taken to the nation’s highest court, the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that separate facilities for Black and white people were constitutional as long as they were equal. The ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson allowing “separate but equal” facilities legally sanctioned segregation in the United States. The ruling denied African Americans access to many of the white facilities that had been racially integrated after the Civil War.

During the 1900s, segregated school facilities were separate but oftentimes not equal. Schools attended by African-American children generally were over-crowded and under-funded. Both materials and facilities were old and in disrepair. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fought against the unequal schools. Five separate cases contesting inequalities in public education were considered under Oliver Brown et. al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka (Brown v. Board) in 1954.2 Brown v. Board ultimately overturned the decision made in Plessy v. Ferguson.

Woman holding up newspaper
In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case desegregated schools. African-American parents throughout the country like Mrs. Hunt, shown here, explained to their children why this was an important moment in history. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Content:

The five school desegregation cases that the Supreme Court agreed to hear in the fall of 1952 included: Oliver Brown et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas), Briggs v. Elliot (South Carolina), Davis v. Prince Edward County School Board (Virginia), Belton v. Gebhart (Delaware), and Bolling v. Sharpe (District of Columbia). The Court heard the cases under Brown v. the Board of Education and convened to hear arguments on December 9, 1952. Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP attorneys argued that segregated schools violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee to “equal protection of the laws.” Lawyers in the case from the District of Columbia charged that segregation violated students’ Fifth Amendment rights to not “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” They wanted immediate integration. The opposing side claimed that segregated schools were legal and should allowed to continue. They said that ensuring that black and white schools were equal was an acceptable compromise.

Brown v. Board of Education

Sumner Elementary School and Monroe Elementary School, Topeka, Kansas

Brown v. Board of Education was initiated by members of the local NAACP chapter in Topeka, Kansas. In the summer of 1950, 13 parents volunteered to try to enroll their children in all-white neighborhood schools . Reverend Oliver Brown attempted to enroll his daughter, Linda, at the all-white Sumner Elementary. Sumner Elementary was only seven blocks from his home. When the request was denied, Linda had to travel further away to attend Monroe Elementary, one of the four schools in Topeka for black students. On February 28, 1951, the parents filed suit against the Topeka Board of Education. Brown was the first parent listed in the suit and the only male, so the case was named after him. The U.S. District Court for Kansas ruled against the parents. However, the judges stated on the record that segregated schools did have a negative impact on Black children. Brown and the NAACP appealed to the Supreme Court on October 1, 1951.

Briggs v. Elliot

Summerton High School, Summerton, South Carolina

Briggs v. Elliot focused on the inequality of education between two all-white schools and three black schools in Clarendon County School District #22. The all-white Summerton High School was described as “modern, safe, sanitary, well equipped, lighted and healthy.” The black schools were described as “inadequate…unhealthy…old and overcrowded and in a dilapidated condition.”3

In November 1949, more than 100 people petitioned the school district to address the differences in budgets, buildings, and services available for black and white students. When the petition was ignored, the local branch of the NAACP filed Briggs v. Elliot in Federal District Court. Harry Briggs, a service station attendant with school-age children, was first on the petition and the case was named after him. R. W. Elliot was the chairman of the board for the school district.

In May 1951, the court ruled against the petitioners, but told the school district to establish equal facilities for black students. The NAACP lawyers appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, however, returned the case to the district court for a second hearing. After learning that Clarendon County was committed to building more schools for Black students and improving educational services, the district court upheld its decision. In May 1952, the NAACP lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court again, this time claiming that segregation itself violated the 14th Amendment guarantee to “equal protection under the laws.”

Belton v. Gebhart, Bulah v. Gebhart

Howard High School, Wilmington, Delaware

Philanthropist Pierre S. DuPont funded the construction of dozens of schools in the early 1900s. Howard High School, located in Wilmington, was among them. Designed by a nationally known expert in school design, Howard High opened in 1929. At the time, it was the only school in Delaware to offer a complete high school education to black students.

Black students living in Claymont, Delaware, spent up to an hour each way traveling to Howard High. They were not allowed to attend the all-white Claymont High which was located right in their neighborhood. Aside from the distance, Claymont School was better equipped and less crowded. With an enrollment of several hundred students, Claymont was situated on a 13-acre campus with playing fields and a running track. Howard High School, on the other hand, had 1,274 students and was in a “congested industrial area, with no play space.”4 After seeking legal advice from NAACP lawyers in March 1951, a group of parents asked the school board to admit their children to Claymont High. When the State Board of Education refused, the parents sued the state of Delaware. The court case was filed in August 1951 as Belton v. Gebhart. The case was named after Ethel Belton who one of the parents suing, and Francis Gebhart who was part of the State Board of Education.

A second case, Bulah v. Gebhart, was brought by Sarah Bulah. Bulah had made several attempts to convince the Delaware Department of Public Instruction to provide buses for black children in the town of Hockessin. A bus for white children passed her house twice a day, but would not pick up her daughter. The Delaware court concluded that “the mental health problems created by racial segregation attributed to a lack of educational progress, and furthermore that under the separate but equal doctrine the plaintiffs had a right to send their children to the white schools.” This was the first time in the United States that a white high school and elementary school were ordered to admit black children.5 The State Attorney General immediately filed an appeal. On August 28, 1952, the Supreme Court of Delaware upheld the decision. In late November, the State Attorney General filed a petition for the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.


Davis v. Prince Edward County School Board

Robert Russa Moton High School, Farmville, Virginia

Before 1939, the only secondary school education available to Black students in Prince Edward County, Virginia was a few extra grades in one elementary school.6 That year, however, a new black high school opened. As with the other 11 high schools for African Americans in Virginia, Robert Russa Moton High School had inadequate facilities. The one-story brick structure had no gymnasium, cafeteria, lockers, or auditorium with fixed seating (unlike the Farmville High School for white students). Built to accommodate 180 students, the school was overflowing with more than 400 students by 1950. Eventually, three temporary buildings were constructed to ease overcrowding. They were dubbed the “tar paper shacks” because of the flimsy material covering the wooden frameworks.

On April 23, 1951, the high-schoolers led a strike to protest the overcrowded conditions, the inadequate shacks, and the school board's unwillingness to build a new high school. After consulting with the Richmond, Virginia office of the NAACP, they decided to sue for integration and to continue the strike until the school year ended on May 7. On May 23, attorneys filed suit in the Federal District Court for the immediate integration of Prince Edward County schools. The case is named after ninth-grade student Dorothy E. Davis, the first plaintiff listed. The court’s decision in the case known as Davis v. the County School Board of Prince Edward County supported the county’s position. The U.S. District court sided with the School Board, and the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal.

Bolling v. Sharpe

John Philip Sousa Junior High School, Washington, D.C.

In the first half of the 20th century, racially segregated schools were the norm in the nation’s capital just as in other schools of the South. Unlike other school systems, however, Washington, D.C. schools depended on congressional funding. The black population in the District expanded greatly between 1930 and 1950. Overcrowding in black schools became typical.

By the fall of 1950, some frustrated parents had formed the Consolidated Parents’ Group. They were ready to legally challenge segregated schools in the District. With the help of attorney James Nabrit, professor of law at the all-black Howard University, the group decided to take a stand at the new all-white John Philip Sousa Junior High School. In a carefully planned effort, 12-year old Spottswood Bolling and 10 other black students tried to gain admission to John Philip Sousa Junior High School on September 11. The principal refused to admit the children, so they were forced to attend the all-black Shaw Junior High. Sousa Junior High was described as a “spacious glass-and-brick structure located across the street from a golf course in a solidly residential section of Southeast Washington.”7 It had 42 classrooms, a 600-seat auditorium, a double gymnasium, and a playground with several athletic courts. Shaw, on the other hand, was “forty-eight years old, dingy, ill-equipped, and located across the street from The Lucky Pawnbroker’s Exchange.”8 It had a makeshift gymnasium, and its playground was too small for a ball field.

James Nabrit filed suit on behalf of Bolling and four other plaintiffs against C. Melvin Sharpe, president of the Board of Education of the District of Columbia. Nabrit did not present evidence that the schools were inferior to the facilities for white students. Instead, the Bolling v. Sharpe case argued that segregation in itself was discrimination and violated students’ rights to due process under the Fifth Amendment. This tactic differed from the other cases, because the 14th Amendment applied to states and therefore was not applicable in the District of Columbia. The District Court Judge dismissed the case. Nabrit filed an appeal and was awaiting a hearing when the Supreme Court sent word that it was interested in considering the case along with the other four segregation cases already pending.

At the Supreme Court

The arguments for all five cases were completed by December 11, after only three days before the Court. The Supreme Court justices were divided on the proper decision and deliberated for nearly six months.9 In June 1953, instead of issuing a ruling, the Court told both sides to come back in the fall to argue whether the 14th Amendment was originally intended to apply to segregation in public schools. The Court reconvened on December 7 and finally issued its historic decision on May 17, 1954. More than half a century after Plessy v. Ferguson established the “separate but equal” doctrine, the Supreme Court unanimously declared that segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment and was unconstitutional. In the Supreme Court’s opinion, Chief Justice Warren wrote,


….In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In a separate opinion for Bolling v. Sharpe, the Court stated: “In view of our decision that the Constitution prohibits the states from maintaining racially segregated public schools, it would be unthinkable that the same Constitution would impose a lesser duty on the Federal Government.”10

Reading Discussion Questions:

  1. Which constitutional amendments did the NAACP claim segregated schools violated? What basic rights do each of these amendments protect?

  1. What were the five cases? How did each one reach the Supreme Court?

  1. When did the Supreme Court first convene to hear arguments? When was a ruling finally issued? Why do you think it took the Court so long to decide?

  1. In your own words, explain the Court's rulings. Why was a separate opinion given for the Bolling v. Sharpe case?

  1. Several of the schools involved in the five cases (and highlighted in the reading) still stand today and have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places or designated as National Historic Landmarks. The Brown V. Board of Education Historic Site is operated by the National Park Service. Do you think it is important to research, document, and recognize historic places associated with the Brown v. Board of Education decision? Explain your answer.

Activities

Each of the following activities asks learners to think creatively and analytically about the Brown v. Board of Education case and its legacy. In the first, participants research the history of segregation in their own community. In the second, learners imagine and draw what the Supreme Court looked like during the case’s trial. Educators should chose one of the following activities to complete with their participants.

Activity 1: Research Local History

The Brown v. Board of Education case was made up of five cases from around the country, demonstrating the way in which segregation marked many, if not most, school systems following the Civil War. In this activity, participants will research the history of segregation in their own community.

First, divide participants into two groups. One group will conduct research on public schools in their town or county in the period leading up to the Brown ruling. The second group will research the same schools in the several years following the Brown ruling. Participants might analyze historic newspapers, conduct oral histories, or primary source documents such as yearbooks, school board records, or court case documents.

Note: If this history has not been documented in your community, or if finding resources is challenging, you may have your students conduct this research on the five cases included in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

Questions for the first group to address include:

  1. Were schools segregated?

  1. How many schools (elementary and secondary) were there for Black and white students?

  1. Were any of the schools involved in local law suits over segregation? Do any of the schools from the period remain today?

Questions for the second group include:

  1. What was the School Board's reaction to the ruling?

  1. What specific changes occurred as a result of Brown v. Board of Education? When did these changes take place?

  1. Did it take additional court rulings before the school system integrated permanently?

After the research is complete, have each group explain its findings. If possible, have participants create an exhibit to display at school, the local library, or historical society. The exhibit should include historical and/or modern photographs of school buildings as well as images of students or newspaper headlines from the period. Complete the activity by discussing with students how local events can have national significance and, in turn, how national events can impact the local community.

Activity 2: Be a Courtroom Sketch Artist

Cameras aren’t allowed in the Supreme Court or in many courtrooms around the country. Instead, courtroom sketch artists draw the scene for news articles and those interested in the cases. Now, it’s your turn to draw a court case! Choose one of the five cases mentioned in this lesson, and draw what you think the courtroom looked like while it was on trial. You may choose to draw the final Supreme Court Trial. For reference images, check out the Supreme Court website, and the Library of Congress Brown V. Board of Education Online Exhibit. While you draw, consider the following points:

  1. Who is in the courtroom?

  1. Who are the judges hearing the case? Who are the lawyers? What are their backgrounds?

  1. Are there people listening to the trial? What do they look like? What do they care about?

  1. What kinds of emotions might people in the courtroom be feeling?

  1. What point of the trial is your picture capturing?


Wrap-Up:

  1. Why do you think school segregation was an important cause of the NAACP?

  1. How do you think the people involved in the cases felt as they went to the Supreme Court?

  1. How did the school buildings the children attended affect their learning?

  1. Why do you think these cases mattered at the time they were passed?

  1. Why might these cases matter to you and your family and friends?

  1. What kinds of questions do these cases make you want to explore more?

Footnotes:
1Quoted in Charles D. Lowery and John F. Marsalek, eds. Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights: From Emancipation to the Present (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992), 281.
2 Brown v. Board consolidated separate cases from four states. A fifth public school segregation case from Washington , DC was considered in the context of Brown , but resulted in a separate opinion. References to Brown in this lesson plan collectively refer to all five cases.
3 J. Tracy Power, “Summerton High School ” (Clarendon County , South Carolina) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1994), 7.
4 Flavia W. Rutkosky and Robin Bodo, “Howard High School” (New Castle County, Delaware) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2004), 14.
5Ibid., 16.
6 Jarl K. Jackson and Julie L. Vosmik, “Robert Russa Moton High School” (Prince Edward County, Virginia) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1994), 9.
7 Richard Kluger, Simple Justice (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 521 quoted by Susan Cianci Salvatore, “John Philip Sousa Junior High School” (Washington , D.C.) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form (Washington , D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001), 11.
8 Ibid., 12.
9 Power, “Summerton High School,” 9.
10 Quoted in Salvatore, 14.

This reading was compiled from Richard Kluger, Simple Justice (New York: Vintage Books, 1977); Martha Hagedorn-Krass, “Sumner Elementary School and Monroe Elementary School” (Shawnee County, Kansas) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1991; J. Tracy Power, “Summerton High School” (Clarendon County, South Carolina) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1994; Flavia W. Rutkosky, “Howard High School” (New Castle County, Delaware) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2004; Jarl K. Jackson and Julie L. Vosmik, “Robert Russa Moton High School” (Prince Edward County, Virginia) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1994; Susan Cianci Salvatore, “John Philip Sousa Junior High School” (Washington, D.C.) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001; and Susan Cianci Salvatore, Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Vicki L. Ruiz, Patricia Sullivan, Harvard Sitkoff, “Racial Desegregation in Public Education in the United States,” National Historic Landmarks Theme Study, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2000

Additional Resource:

National Park Service
Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site is a unit of the National Park System. The site is located at Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas. Monroe was the segregated school attended by the lead plaintiff's daughter, Linda Brown, when Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was initially filed in 1951. The park's web page provides in-depth information on the case as well as related cases, and visitation and research information.


“With an Even Hand”: Brown v. Board at 50
This Library of Congress online exhibition examines the court cases that laid the ground work for the Brown v. Board decision, explores the Supreme Court argument and the public's response to it, and provides an overview of the decision's aftermath.


Brown at 50: Fulfilling the Promise
This website, sponsored by Howard University School of Law, commemorates the 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The site features a chronology of events leading up to the case and beyond, biographical sketches of some of the figures involved in the case, as well as the full text of the Supreme Court's decision.


Separate Is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education
This online exhibit, produced by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, includes sections on the history of segregation in America, the fight to end segregation, and the legacy of the Brown ruling.

Part of a series of articles titled Civil Rights and Public Education .

Last updated: May 4, 2021