Companion Guide

While most screen readers should be able to scan this guide, a more accessible version can be found here.
 

The Brown Decision


As we set the stage, try to remember the result of the case and see how the struggle, hard work, and genius of those involved did or didn't pay off. After more than a century of legal and civil battles, a group called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people, finally reached a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court when Chief Justice Earl Warren issued the court's decision:

"We conclude, in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'Separate but Equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Reflect

Do you think we're living up to the promise of Brown v. Board today?

Are there schools that are almost entirely one race in your community?
Why do you think that is?

What role do you think the Brown decision had in the Modern Civil Rights movement?

Slavery and Oppression

1619

Slavery and oppression weren't new concepts. The history of oppression in the United States for many people of color, dates back to 1619. The privateer ship The White Lion arrived at Point Comfort, Va., and later Jamestown, Va., carrying approximately 20-30 Africans who were traded in exchange for supplies. Slavery had reached the new world.


Reflect

Do you think slave-owners who didn't beat and torture enslaved people were any different than people who did?
Why or why not?

Do you feel slavery was just a 'product of its time?'
How does that explain Abolitionists who were products of the same time?

What effect do you think Lincoln’s assassination had on states when they voted to ratify the 13th Amendment?

Reconstruction

After enduring hundreds of years of enslavement, the United States nearly being torn apart, and freedom granted to only some, the day had finally arrived. On December 6, 1865, the United States Congress ratified the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, except as punishment for a crime. This act would turn over a bright new chapter in our nation's history, or so some thought.
 

Black Codes

Many whites didn't want to comingle with people they had viewed as animals and property for centuries, let alone be on equal footing with them. With few laws protecting the treatment of these newly freed people, several states developed policies, dubbed the Black Codes, to prevent even a semblance of equality for non-whites.


Civil Rights

Despite the harsh resistance, most African-Americans saw voting as their civic duty. Farmers, soldiers, freedmen, teachers, and all other walks of life showed up to cast their vote. Many Black elected officials never saw office due to harsh white resistance. Others leveraged their offices to make strides forward for all people. Amendments like the 14th and 15th were added to the constitution, guaranteeing equal protection of the laws, citizenship, and the right to vote without the taxes or tests of the past.

 

Reflect

Do you think Congress has a moral responsibility to create laws to prohibit social practices when those practices are harmful to others?
Why or why not?

Which do you think is more likely; broad and vague laws being abused, or narrow and specific laws being ignored?
Why or why not?

Separate but (Un)Equal

The Birth of Jim Crow

With some civil rights being granted by new acts and amendments, a new series of laws took the place of the Black Codes. These laws separated whites and non-whites, dictating where people could eat, sleep, work, live, and otherwise enjoy their lives.

This spirit of discrimination that often created better facilities for whites and oppressing people of color were dubbed, Jim Crow.

Plessy v. Ferguson — 1896

In 1890 Louisiana enacted what's commonly called the Separate Car Act, requiring that all passenger trains in the state would have separate cars "that were equal in facilities" for whites and people of color.

A group called the Citizen's Committee of New Orleans challenged the act by sending one of its members to sit in a white car, refuse to leave, and be arrested under the law. In response, the group filed a lawsuit.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled against Plessy in a 7-1 decision. Justice Henry Billings Brown delivered the court's opinion, stating so long as the facilities provided equal accommodations:

"We cannot say that a law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public conveyances is unreasonable"

Only Justice John Marshall Harlan voted to rule against segregation. In his dissent he would give a voice to the voiceless, slowly sway public opinion, and open the door to future challenges to Plessy.

“Our constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”

The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in this case instituted the doctrine of Separate but Equal which became the law of the land.

Reflect

Why do you think some whites wanted to be separate from other races?

Do you think this view was taught or were these whites born with it?

How can we avoid teaching this view to kids in the future?

Case of the Century

NAACP Enters the Scene

In response to the Springfield Race Riot of 1908, and seeing a need for a nation-wide coordinated effort for racial equality, a diverse group of individuals including writer Ida B. Wells, historian W.E.B. DuBois, suffragist Mary White Ovington, and Sociologist Henry Moskowitz founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

This group would go on to confront the issue of Separate but Equal through a series of carefully selected lawsuits. By the time the group had a formal plan to target inequality however, the NAACP couldn't afford to follow it until the late 1930's due to the Great Depression.

Charles Hamilton Houston

Houston became the first general counsel to the NAACP in 1935, building off the NAACP's plan with an ingenious twist; he would build legal precedent by targeting places where there were no Black facilities at all.



A few of his plan's milestones include:
 

Murray v. Pearson — 1936

Maryland courts ruled that sending law students out of state, rather than admit them to white universities, could not prepare them for a career in Maryland. A great victory for the state.




 

Gaines v. Canada — 1938

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that each state must provide equal opportunities, not just offer to pay students to attend out-of-state schools.


 

Sweatt v. Painter — 1950

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the experiences, opportunities, and prestige all impact education. Things that can't be touched or held can still have value. 


 

Brown v. Board of Education — 1954

Each of the following cases were represented by the NAACP and eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Many of the lower courts ordered 'equalization' of schools. Essentially trying to allow the school boards to throw some cash at the situation in hopes it would go away.

 

Briggs v. Elliott — 1949

Parents in Clarendon County, S.C. had asked the county to provide buses for their children, as they had for the white students. When they were ignored, they filed a lawsuit challenging segregation itself. 



 

Bolling v. Sharpe — 1950

The Consolidated Parents Group, Inc. tried to enroll 11 African-American students an all-white school in 1950. The students were denied based on race, and the parents filed a lawsuit. 




 

Davis v. Prince Edward County — 1951

In 1951, Barbara Rose Johns organized a student strike to speak out against terrible conditions in her school in Farmville, Va. More than 450 students participated and more than 150 filed a lawsuit. They demanded the state segregation law be struck down. 




 

Belton (Bulah) v. Gebhart — 1951

Two different cases, parents tried to enroll their children in white schools to avoid poor conditions, or provide transportation. When they were denied, they filed lawsuits. 




 

Brown v. Board of Education — 1951

The NAACP recruited 13 families in Topeka to try to enroll their children in white schools. When they were denied they filed a lawsuit. Topeka's school system actually looked equal in what you could see, feel, and touch though, so there was nothing to 'equalize.' Segregation itself was the target here.

The U.S. District Court ruled against integration, but accepted psychological evidence that African-Americans were adversely affected by segregation itself. 


 


A Turning Point

With all the challenges to the Plessy decision, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to bundle the five cases together to hear them at the same time.

The Argument for Segregation

Attorneys representing segregation such as John S. Davis, Paul E. Wilson, H. Albert Young, and Milton Kormon relied heavily on the letter of the law of the constitution and states' rights to self-govern when no guidance was provided by the constitution. Such arguments as:

  • The constitution, or any of its amendments, didn't explicitly require integrated schools.

  • Social separation of races was largely a regional custom, which wasn't prohibited under the constitution, and therefore left for the states to decide.

  • White administrators and legislators had made 'good faith efforts' to equalize schools, but it would take time to shake off the effects of slavery.

  • Segregation hadn't created any 'real' injury to Blacks, or any people of color. The Plessy decision had even gone so far to claim feelings of inferiority were only perceived by people of color.

The Argument Against Segregation

Thurgood Marshall and his team relied on the inequalities experienced because of segregation, as well as expert testimony of the psychological damage that resulted from indoctrinating children in the practice.

  • The 14th Amendment allowed the government to prohibit any discriminatory action from a state based on race, which included segregation in public schools.

  • The U.S. Supreme Court had misinterpreted the 14th Amendment in the Plessy decision. Equal protection of the laws could not allow for racial segregation by its very nature.

  • The 14th Amendment never specified or granted power to the states to create segregated educational facilities.

  • Psychological testing confirmed the harmful effects of segregation on the minds of African-American children.

Psychology  

Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark had been conducting a study on the impacts of segregation in school children as early as the 1930's. They would sit down with white and black children alike, ages 6-9, and ask them a series of questions while presenting them with two dolls.

With one white doll and one black doll in front of the children, the Clarks would ask:

"Which doll is the nice one?"
"Which doll is the ugly one?"
"Which doll do you want to play with?"

The Clarks asked several similar questions while observing the children's behavior with the dolls as well as their answers. A majority of students pointed to the white doll for the nice positive questions, and the black doll for the mean negative ones.

They then asked, "Which doll looks most like you?"

Black students would cry, refuse to answer, leave the room, and even choose the white doll.

The NAACP asked the Clarks to expand the study into southern schools, like Liberty Hill Colored school in Clarendon County, S.C., to compare the results from students from several situations. When the results were the same as students from northern states — which had mostly social segregation as opposed to legal segregation — they concluded the act of segregation itself, not the difference in facilities, caused psychological damage to the black self-image that was unlikely to heal as the damage had been done at such a young age.

The Decision  

Echoing the U.S. District Court's earlier decision in Kansas, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted the Clark's study as evidence and concluded that the 14th and 5th Amendments had been violated, as the states and Washington D.C. had denied equal protection of the laws when it damaged one population but not another through segregation. On May 17th, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion of the court:

"Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected ... Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs [are] deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."

This wasn't a decision the court had taken lightly. While Justice Fred Vinson was the Chief Justice, the court had been deeply divded over the issue and requested to hear arguments multiple times so they continue deliberating.

When Vinson died of a heart attack during the case, he was replaced by Gov. Earl Warren of California.

Warren was able to do something Vinson couldn't. He was able to convince the remaining hold-out Justices to agree to the opinion above. Unlike Justice John Marshall Harlan in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, none of the justices dissented.
A unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme essentially closed the door on future challenges to Brown v. Board.

Without that voice for segregation in the nation's highest court, even though the opinion was limited to the narrow realm of public education, it sent a resounding message to the United States as a whole.

Segregation is inherently unequal.

The Fallout

Change didn't happen overnight. Deliberations continued in the remedy phase of the case for more than a year after the decision. The court heard plans from the NAACP Attorneys, and even reached out to Attorneys General of various segregated states for an answer of how to best handle integration.

Without a solid plan that would avoid race riots, on May 31, 1955, the court urged segregated states to integrate their schools "With All Deliberate Speed"

Some places, such as Topeka, had already begun the process while the case was still being argued. Others took much longer, and some said 'Never.' Governors like Orval Faubus of Arkansas, came out and told their states they didn't have to obey the courts:

“The decision is yours to make. Public sentiment is with you in this struggle to preserve our legal and time-honored rights.”

Little Rock Nine — 1957

Faubus went so far as to order the National Guard of Arkansas to physically block students of color from attending Central High School in Little Rock.

It took intervention from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sent in the 101st Airborne to escort the students to school in order to enforce the court's decision.

"Mob rule cannot be allowed to overturn the decisions of our courts."

These children walked through crowds of people threatening to kill them every single day for the supposed offense of attending a formerly all-white school.

Ruby Bridges — 1960

Ruby was born September 8, 1954, four months after the initial Brown decision. Yet she was the first to integrate her school in New Orleans, Louisiana.

She was supposed to be part of a larger group of students, but the parents of the rest of the children decided to send their children to former all-Black schools after threats of violence from the white community.

While the administrators of the school were legally required to let Ruby in the building, they moved the white children to another classroom, and hired Barbara Henry specifically to teach only Ruby.

For Ruby's protection, she was escorted by U.S. Marshalls to school every day. Just like the Little Rock Nine or the Clinton 12 and many others before her, Ruby had to walk through a mob of grown men and women threatening to burn down her house, poison her food, and kill her parents.

Ruby had been instructed not to talk to anyone in the crowd, in case it would provoke them further. One day while walking up the steps to school, Mrs. Henry saw Ruby's lips moving. When Ruby got inside, her teacher asked, "What were you saying to them Ruby?" Ruby's response was short:

"I wasn't talking to them. I was praying for them."

Whether religious or not, one has to admire the strength of character of a six-year old girl to wish well people who want her dead.

As powerful as Ruby's story is, sadly it isn't alone. Despite the Brown decision, it would take an enormous amount of people with the same strength of character to stand up and resist Segregation on all fronts.

Modern Civil Rights Movement

Brown had opened the door with public education, but what about busses? lunch counters? hotels? pools? movie theaters? housing? The Brown decision hadn't integrated anything beyond public schools, but it opened a path forward. People like Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and even Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson stepped up to do what they thought was right to promote equality in this country. Millions of Americans from all walks of life followed suit, demanding freedom and justice for all.

Montgomery Bus Boycotts — 1955-1956

Building off the progress made in the Brown decision, on December 1st, 1955, a woman named Rosa parks paid for a bus fare at the front, exited the bus, and re-entered through the Black entrance in the back — per the custom at the time. She sat down in the first row of Black seats.

At the time, the front half of the bus was reserved for whites, and the back half for Blacks. When the front half would fill, Black passengers were asked to give up their seats in the front of the Black section for white passengers.

When this happened to Parks and three other passengers, they gave up their seats, except for Parks. She was arrested, and fined.Active in the NAACP, she called E.D. Nixon, a prominent Black leader, to bail her out. The NAACP also began a class-action lawsuit Browder v. Gayle — though Parks couldn't be admitted because of a technicality.

In coordination with Black leaders, such as a young pastor named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and groups like the Women's Political Council they distributed flyers calling for people of color to boycott the city bus system. Jo Ann Robinson, WPC president, coordinated the finer details of the boycott personally.

For more than a year, roughly 17,000 people of color drove, car-pooled or walked anywhere they needed to go in protest of segregation on public busses in Montgomery.

On December 20, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the class-action Browder v. Gaynes, and ordered the integration of Montgomery's busses, declaring them unconstitutional.

The next day Parks, Nixon and King boarded a bus and legally sat in the front row.

The boycotts came to an end, lasting 381 days.

Sit-Ins — 1960-1961

Building off of the growing momentum from movements like the bus boycotts, a group of students in Greensboro North Carolina sat at a whites-only lunch counter and refused to leave until they were served or arrested.

Hearing about an effective non-violent form of resistance more students and people at large began to participate in their own sit-ins. Some even forming groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to coordinate with the NAACP and leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Throughout 1960 and 1961 more than 70,000 people participated in sit-ins showing the growing push for racial civil rights. Dozens, if not hundreds, of businesses began to integrate as a result of the economic and social pressure the sit-ins created.

Freedom Riders — 1961

In 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court had banned segregation on interstate travel. Putting that ruling to the test, groups like the Congress of Racial Equality began travelling through southern states as early as 1947.

On May 4, 1961, a group of seven African-Americans and six whites, set out to revive the practice. Believing they would encounter violent resistance and force the federal government to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1946 as it had with Brown.

Through their journeys they were beaten, arrested, sent back to neighboring states, tires on their busses were slashed, and a bus had even been fire-bombed. The number of Freedom Riders only grew.

At one point, they gained the protection of State Highway Patrol after a plea to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. They were later assigned National Guard protection of the now 27 Freedom Riders after local police in Montgomery refused to enforce the laws and the freedom riders were beaten again.

On May 29, 1961, Kennedy ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce even stricter bans on segregation in interstate travel, but it wouldn't take effect until September of that year. The Freedom Riders continued onward until the rules were in effect.

Civil Rights act of 1964

President John F. Kennedy had demanded that Congress develop a comprehensive civil rights bill to protect the equality of all citizens. He publicly advocated for equal rights in the United States:

"We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes;
that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes;
that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?
Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise.
The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them."

President Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas Texas in November of 1963.

His successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, a southerner, took up the mantle of pushing congress to draft a civil rights bill. he called congressmen personally, asking for votes from 'the party of Lincoln' and even threatening "We've GOT to have Civil Rights, or I QUIT!"

Congress drafted and passed a bill that was signed by President Johnson on July 2, 1964, which prohibited "discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin" applying to public accommodations, promoting or firing in the workplace, or any federally funded programs. This bill would go on to be strengthened by Congress over the years, and had finally closed the door on the application of Jim Crow laws under the Plessy decision.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an enormous milestone for the country, but there was more work to be done. If discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin was unacceptable — what about Ability Level? Sexual orientation? Gender Identity?

Civil Rights Expanding

Over the years, activists for people with disabilities in the United States advocated for the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life. It wouldn't be until 1990 that the Americans with Disabilities Act — modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — would be signed into law.

LGBTQIA+ groups had been advocating for equality since the 1920s, with a large movement in the 1970s, but it wasn't until 2004 that any states would recognize same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage wasn't federally protected until 2015. As recently as 2020 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected as extensions of one's sex under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Are their struggles somehow any less important than the one for racial equality?

Reflect on the World Today

We like to think of the United States as the 'Land of the Free and Home of the Brave,' but can we truly be free without people brave enough to stand up for equality?

Do you feel we've reached the promise of racial equality so many have struggled for?
Why or why not?

Think about the world you live in and the struggles of people around you, no matter how insignificant you feel it might be. Is there something you could do to relieve their pain?

Even if you don't understand someone's struggle or point of view, is their way of life going to harm you? If not, why stand in the way?

The Brown story is one of individual actions by engaged citizens. We as Americans can foster understanding and appreciation through art, culture, law, and politics on local, national and even international levels if we all work toward the same goal: Equality.


 

Education in Topeka

By 1928, the Topeka School Board announced segregated education would be the standard from kindergarten through eighth grade. Construction on Monroe School started in 1926 and was completed in 1927. Four schools were built for "colored" students between 1926 and 1927: Monroe, McKinley, Washington and Buchannan. All would be up and running by the time the district officially separated the students based on race.

Kindergarten Class — 1949

At the height of “permitted segregation” in Kansas, this room was designed as an inviting place where children could feel protected and free from the restrains of a segregated community.

Exodusters

By 1897, many southern African Americans had moved to Kansas. Reverend Charles Sheldon established kindergarten classes for the children of “Exodust” homesteaders. In Topeka, black migrants settled mainly in 4 communities: Tennessee Town, Mud Town, Sand Town, and the Bottoms.

Education in the Age of Jim Crow

Jim Crow laws legally sanctioned segregation. Settlement patterns, economics, changing demographics, and court cases all contributed to how legal sanctions and discrimination evolved and changed in the military, transportation, and education. In Topeka, the dual school system functioned adequately mainly because the school district maintained a standard of “as equal as possible.” This auditorium is symbolic of a tangible level of equality, within a segregated community.

Master Teacher Mamie Williams

Black teachers educated black children in the first years of schooling. They committed every aspect of their master’s level training to prepare their students socially and academically. Teachers like Mamie Williams encouraged students to “be a miracle” and held high expectations for academic success.

Monroe and Randolph Grade Schools — 1949

In 1949, Monroe Elementary was one of four segregated elementary schools in Topeka. Unlike southern states, Kansas law only permitted segregation in elementary schools and only in cities with more than 15,000 residents. These students would attend integrated junior high and high schools.

Auditorium as Lunchroom

At 11:30 a.m. each day, the lunch bell rang. The older students assisted their young schoolmates who did not walk home for lunch, across the street to Miss Laura’s Coffee Shop where they purchased hot chili, soda pop, and candy. They would then make their way back to the school auditorium to have lunch.

Linda Brown

Linda Brown attended Monroe grade school until the 6th grade and the time of the NAACP lawsuit that became known as Brown v. Board of Education. Her family resided in a racially-mixed community near the Sumner grade school where her father, Oliver Brown, tried to enroll her.

Segregated Preparation

Contrary to the standard preparation for "colored" students throughout Topeka’s segregated schools, African-American children were educated in the trade occupations for eventual service work. However, students saw examples of black professionals such as lawyers, physicians, educators, and entrepreneurs, which they could emulate. Topeka’s black community pressed forward to establish a thriving independent economy with multiple residents enjoying the benefits of an upper-class existence.

Topeka's African-American Teachers — 1949

Not everyone supported the NAACP’s challenge of the separate but equal law. Many highly qualified African-American teachers stood silent. Collectively, they did not believe the "colored" schools were substandard, and they had doubts that "colored" students would do as well in integrated schools.

Grades 3 & 4

The separation of white and black children in Topeka’s public elementary schools did not occur swiftly. School boards were granted discretionary power to “provide separate schools for the education of colored and white children,” yet Topeka moved cautiously towards creating a dual school system.

Grades 5 through 8

The 2nd floor of Monroe Grade School was home to the 5th through 8th grades. This floor housed a domestic science class where girls learned home economics. At later times, this floor had as a library, a music room, and a teacher’s lunchroom.

Graduating 'Scholars'

Monroe Grade School hosted annual 8th grade graduation ceremonies. Based on local school records, 80% of the students who passed through the "colored" grade schools advanced on to Topeka High School, which at the time was the largest high school facility in the county.

 

Further Reading

Within a century the practice of owning human beings as cattle was booming. It became a multi-billion dollar business by today's dollar. It was the backbone of several states' economies.

Viewed as nothing more than property, enslaved people faced grueling conditions. They were often banned from learning to read or write, had their families torn apart when they were sold separately at auction, were beaten, were tortured, and even killed.

By 1804 the northern more industrial states, had abolished the practice. Machines were cheaper, and just as useful.

In southern farm based states, it had become a vital part of life as they knew it. The cotton gin increased the amount of cotton a single enslaved person could produce by 100 fold. Plantations that had barely been covering costs could now produce huge wealth.

Owners of cotton and sugar farms, wanted greater profits and power. They tried to expand slavery into every new state that joined the union.

Meanwhile Abolitionists wanted to end slavery and tried to stop them.

Politicians argued on either side, and laws like the Missouri Compromise left almost nobody happy.

Rising moral, political and economic tensions reached a boiling point in 1860. Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. He was elected without a single electoral vote from the south.

Southern states were under moral pressure to end slavery. Without it, their economies would crumble. They had to fight just to try and expand Slavery. After Lincoln's win they felt they had no power left in the Union to govern themselves. These states were fed up with the 'northern' states interfering with slavery laws. They seceded from the United States.

They argued the federal government had violated their state's rights. These now Confederate States of America, made their own laws. Ironically, the confederate constitution required all confederate states to 'recognize and protect' "the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists." They created the same federal power many claimed to oppose, just in support of slavery instead.


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Blacks couldn't testify in, or serve on a jury for cases regarding a white person. They couldn't quit their job, or lease their farm as a white man could. They had to pass a test, or pay a hefty tax in order to vote. Vagrancy became a crime, but only if you weren't white. Anyone who violated any of these laws could be sent to prison.


A group of people simply chatting in a public park while enjoying the day could be arrested, charged with vagrancy, and sent to prison or fined — which often resulted in being sent to a debtor's prison. These prisons leased these people out to perform hard labor.

The 13th Amendment, the same amendment that had enslaved these people to begin with, allowed for slavery as a form of punishment. With a few extra steps, slavery had found a new, legal path to return.


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Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s one main pastime was song and dance minstrel shows. Though not the first to don black-face and insult enslaved people, Tom Rice quickly became one of the most popular. He's one of the most remembered today, and even called the Father of Minstrelsy through in insulting character he created, named Jim Crow.

Jim Crow became shorthand for racially targeted laws likely due to the character's popularity and insulting imitation of African-Americans.


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Despite Massachusetts ending slavery by the late 1700s, students of color still faced racism in classrooms. Many Black parents turned to private schools run by churches or communities for their children. This quickly became the norm. Over the next few decades, local officials stopped admitting any students of color. Black parents were now paying taxes for a school system their children couldn't attend.

On behalf of his daughter Sarah, in the 1840s Benjamin Roberts and a group parents challeneged segregation in Boston. They worked with Robert Morris, one of the first African-American attorneys in the U.S., and Charles Sumner. Sadly in 1849 courts ruled that 'special provisions' had been made. These included a single public school that had admitted students of color in the past and the private network of schools. Because of these schools, the courts said administrators had the right to deny students based on race.

Five years later however, legislators passed a bill prohibiting schools from denying admission based on color, race or religion.


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After Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act in 1890, a group called the Citizen's Committee of New Orleans, challenged the law. They sent of its members, Homer Plessy, to sit in a white car, refuse to leave, and be arrested under the law.

They hired Albion W. Tourgée, a Republican author and politician at the time, and filed a lawsuit to challenge the Separate Car Act. Judge John H. Ferguson upheld the state law, which led to Plessy filed writs of prohibition, certiorari, and error against Judge Ferguson. Simply put, these writs stated Plessy felt the ruling was illegal and demanded Judge Ferguson to send the case to the next higher court, eventually allowing the case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. This is why the case is known as Plessy v. Ferguson and not, for instance, Plessy v. Louisiana.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled against Plessy in a 7-1 decision. Justice Henry Billings Brown delivered the court's opinion, stating so long as the facilities provided 'equal' accommodations:

"We cannot say that a law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public conveyances is unreasonable"

Justice John Marshall Harlan alone dissagreed with the outcome of the case. In a fiery opinion known as the Great Dissent, he wrote:

"If laws of like character should be enacted in the several States of the Union, the effect would be in the highest degree mischievous...there would remain a power in the States, by sinister legislation, to interfere with the blessings of freedom....In the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful"

Despite his dissent the rest of the U.S. Supreme Court's Justices agreed with the defense that any feelings of inferiority were perceived by people of color. Even if they weren't, the constitution only protected civil rights not social status. They accepted that Homer Plessy, who was 1/8th black and 7/8ths white, was a person of color. This implied that anyone who wasn't 100% white could be discriminated against. This is what would later become the 'One Drop Rule.' It would later be paired with 'Separate but Equal' to influence the law of the land.


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With advice from both Felix Frankfurter and Charles Hamilton Houston — Frankfurter a well-known progressive attorney, advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later an Associate Supreme Court Justice during the Brown v. Board case, and Houston then the Dean of Howard University School of Law, and soon to be first general counsel of the NAACP — the NAACP hired Nathan Margold, a Romanian-born progressive attorney, as their first staff attorney. He wrote The Margold Report for them creating an approach to challenge segregation in schools. Challenges had already been made and the laws seemed easiest to overcome. He built off a framework set forth by Robert Morris and Charles Sumner from the 1849 Roberts v. Boston case




Margold's strategy was to point out that under-funding and poor conditions in Black schools didn't meet the "Separate but Equal" standard and face administrators with a choice: either the costly option of building 'equal' facilities for Black students, or the much cheaper option of simply integrating schools.

During the Great Depression, when funds were almost nowhere to be found, this seemed like a sound strategy, but presented a double-edged sword. The NAACP also couldn't afford to follow through with the plan immediately.


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Houston had served in the Army as a First Lieutenant during World War I and experienced violent discrimination first-hand. He vowed to make the world a better place in the best way he knew how, the law.

"The hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them. I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back."

He attended Harvard University, becoming the first African-American to serve on the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review, and graduated cum laude. He went on to become the Vice-Dean and Dean of the Howard University School of Law. During this time Howard trained a new generation of civil rights attorneys including Thurgood Marshall. He also recommended the NAACP hire Nathan Margold in devising a strategy to challenge segregation. In 1935 he left Howard University to become the first general counsel for the NAACP.

Through his work at Howard University training a new generation of Black civil rights attorneys and his work for the NAACP expanding and executing the Margold Report, Houston earned the moniker: The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.

It was Houston's idea to not just target locations where inferior conditions existed, but also where no alternative for Black education had been provided at all. With his leadership, his team set precedents and milestones that would box segregation into a corner so it could be challenged. 

Sadly Houston wouldn't live to see his plan through. He fell ill and later died of a heart attack in April of 1950. However, he was able to hand over his cases to his team and transfer leadership to Thurgood Marshall before his passing.


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A young man, Donald Gaines Murray, tried to enroll at the University of Maryland School of Law, but was denied on race alone. The school offered to help Murray attend a university out of state instead. Murray rejected the offer and sued the president of the university.

Houston, along with Thurgood Marshall, took up Murray's case and argued that a school out of state could not prepare Murray for a legal career in the state of Maryland.

The Maryland Court of Appeals agreed and ordered the school to integrate its students. This set a precedent that would lead to integration across the state -- a hard-won victory ... in Maryland.


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Similar to the Murray case, Lloyd Gaines tried to enroll in the University of Missouri Law School. He was refused only because he was Black. No law schools in Missouri would allow people of color to enroll. Like in Maryland the school offered to help him attend a university in Iowa instead.

Houston and Marshall also took up Gaines' case and argued that the 14th Amendment's 'Equal Protection' clause had been broken.

"[No State] shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction, the equal protection of the law."

As no lower courts could easily deny it hadn't been broken, the case quickly made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sending students of color out of state didn't meet the equal protection requirement of the 14th Amendment. They ordered the Missouri Supreme Court to re-hear the case. Sadly, Lloyd Gaines couldn't be found, and the case was dismissed.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion that individual states must provide in-state opportunities for students of color stood.

 

Reflect

What do you think happened to Lloyd Gaines, a Black man in 1930's Missouri who demanded integration?


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Houston became ill and passed away from a heart attack in 1950. Thurgood Marshall took up the NAACP's cause. Marshall represented Heman Sweatt as he sued the president of his school.

Sweatt tried to enroll in the University of Texas Law School, and was denied based on his race. While arguing the case, the school quickly threw together an annex. This University of Texas Law School for Negroes was in the basement of an office building in Houston. The main school was located in Austin though.

Marshall argued that this new 'school' not only lacked equal facilities, but also equal experiences. Only a handful of students attended, so there were fewer chances to practice arguments, learn new ideas, and grow as a student. Along with fewer staff and resources, these students had none of the opportunities of the white students.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the experiences in a learning environment held just as much value as the facilities themselves. The University of Texas was unable to make a separate campus with all the same resources, experiences, opportunities, and prestige as the main campus. The court ruled the university must admit Heman Sweatt.


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Parents in Clarendon County, S.C. had asked the county to provide buses for their children, as they had for the white students. When they were ignored, they filed a lawsuit challenging segregation itself.

Thurgood Marshall and Harold Boulware, a local attorney, presented psychological evidence and expert testimony regarding the African-American school conditions.

A three-judge panel for the U.S. District Court denied the request to abolish school segregation. Instead, they ordered the 'equalization' of the facilities.


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The Consolidated Parents Group, Inc. launched a campaign against segregated schools in Washington D.C. in 1947.

By 1950 they tried to enroll 11 African-American students at the new all-white John Philip Sousa Junior High School. The students were denied based on race, and the parents filed a lawsuit. Charles Hamilton Houston offered to help the group, but he fell ill. James Nabrit Jr., a friend of Houston's from Howard University stepped in to help the parents.

The U.S. District court dismissed Nabrit's argument against segregation itself, instead of the conditions of the Black schools. Nabrit appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.




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In 1951, Barbara Rose Johns organized a student strike to speak out against terrible conditions in her school in Farmville, Va. More than 450 students from Moton High School participated in the two-week protest, and they requested assistance from the NAACP branch office in Richmond, Va.

They argued the school deprived them of equal education, as their school had no gymnasium, cafeteria, infirmary or teacher restrooms, and the school was so overcrowded they had to hold classes in tar-paper buildings and even an old bus. Represented by Spottswood Robinson III and Oliver Hill from the local NAACP, more than 170 students participated in a lawsuit against the county school board.

They demanded the state segregation law be struck down. A three-judge panel for the U.S. District court rejected the students request, and instead ordered the 'equalization' of the schools.


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Parents in Delaware brought up two separate cases. In one, their children had to ride a bus to far-off run-down facilities. In another, the school didn’t provide Black busses at all. They were represented by Louis Redding. Redding, the state's first Black attorney, suggested they enroll their children in white schools nearby.

When they were denied, Redding filed a lawsuit on their behalf to argue the 14th Amendment had been broken by not providing busses or equal schools for the students.

In a groundbreaking decision, the Delaware Court of Chancery agreed. However, the board of education appealed the decision.


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The NAACP needed to build a case to challenge segregation without the risking an 'equalization' order by the courts. They set their sights on Kansas where schools were built with the idea of 'Equal but Separate.' If they could prove segregation itself was unconstitutional it would be a huge step forward. Topeka was somewhat unique because it tried to create as equal facilities as possible, while still maintaining segregated schools.

The local NAACP chapter in Topeka began recruiting families to enroll their children in white schools. Many children had to travel across town to reach a Black school, while white schools were much closer. Every child was refused admission. Their parents filed a lawsuit against the board of education.

Represented by the local NAACP attorneys Charles Bledsoe, Charles Scott and John Scott they brought forward psychological evidence regarding the impact of segregation itself.

The U.S. District Court ruled against integration, but accepted the psychological evidence that African-Americans were adversely affected by segregation itself.

"Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn."


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Last updated: August 18, 2022

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