Well into the 20th century, the doctrine of “separate but equal” had a profoundly negative impact on African Americans living in the United States by inhibiting their access to proper education, adequate transportation, and employment opportunities. Following the “separate but equal” doctrine, many school districts throughout the nation practiced racial segregation by providing separate educational facilities for white and African American children. Parents, educators, children, scholars, and Civil Rights advocates alike saw this segregation as an outright abuse of the rights of African Americans as American citizens.
It was not until May 17, 1954, that the United States Supreme Court unanimously decided in the case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topekathat “…Separate education facilities are inherently unequal.” The court found that the doctrine of “separate but equal” was a violation of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas commemorates this landmark Supreme Court decision, which established the legal framework for dismantling racial segregation in public schools and marked a major victory in the Civil Rights Movement.
The Oliver L. Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka et al. case has its roots in post-Civil War America. After the Civil War, a number of States codified their pre-existing social patterns of discrimination. Harsh counter reactions to the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution resulted in the repression of many newly freed African Americans. States created laws that relegated African Americans to separate public facilities or barred them from some facilities altogether.
Particularly in the South, States and localities created obstacles and mandated practices that further marginalized African Americans. Discriminatory poll taxes and literacy tests prevented African Americans from voting. Public amenities such as railroad cars, drinking fountains, waiting rooms, and public toilets were segregated. African Americans throughout the United States contested the reality, morality, and constitutionality of the "separate but equal" doctrine.
In 1892, Homer Plessy, an African American New Orleans citizen, challenged the Louisiana Separate Cars Act by attempting to sit in a whites-only railroad car. Plessy was arrested for this action of “civil disobedience,” and a District Court judge upheld the legality of the Separate Cars Act. Ultimately, on appeal, the case reached the Supreme Court as Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld the earlier decision and ruled that separation did not in itself deny equality before the law. This case institutionalized the “separate but equal” doctrine. Civil rights advocates would have to work for decades against laws and regulations that used the Plessy case as their legal backing for sanctioned segregation and disenfranchisement.
The Plessy v. Ferguson decision set the precedent for future court decisions regarding the “separate but equal” doctrine. As opportunities for African Americans steadily declined, the negative effects of the ruling on public education were especially pronounced. African American schools had insufficient funding, inadequate and irregular transportation, meager school supplies, and deficient school buildings, which had a profoundly negative impact on the quality of education African American students received. African American students sometimes went to school in converted church basements, vacant stores, or empty school buses.
By 1948, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) decided to take on the Plessy decision directly to try to get the decision overturned. The injustices African American schoolchildren suffered had gone on far too long. The NAACP took five separate cases that contested the inequalities in public education to the Supreme Court; the Court consolidated them as Oliver L. Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka et al. The five separate cases included Belton (Bulah) v. Gebhart(Delaware), Bolling v. Sharpe (District of Columbia), Brown v. Board of Education (Kansas), Briggs v. Elliott (South Carolina), and Davis v. County School Board (Virginia).
Throughout the case, Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP Chief Counsel, argued that racial classifications and segregation were inherently unconstitutional (as were separate educational facilities) stigmatizing African Americans and denying them equal protection under the law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren, in a unanimous decision from the court, declared that, “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The court overturned the Plessy decision and re-affirmed the 14th Amendment.
Monroe Elementary School, now the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, was one of the four segregated schools for African Americans in Topeka, Kansas. The school is an ideal place to remember this landmark decision and to learn about African American struggles for equality. The Monroe School serves as a symbol of the importance of equal educational opportunities. Visitors can walk its halls and imagine what it was like to attend a segregated school and explore the history of Brown v. Board of Education by viewing the exhibits located throughout the building.
Brown v. Board National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 1515 SE Monroe St., Topeka, KS. It is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm year round except for Thanksgiving Day, December 25, and January 1. For more information, visit the National Park Service Brown v. Board National Historic Site website or call 785-354-4273.