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Setting the Stage

The issue of school desegregation was neither peculiar to the South nor to the 20th century. As early as 1849, in the school desegregation case of Roberts v. the City of Boston, attorney Charles Sumner, arguing on behalf of the African-American plaintiffs, stated:

Who can say that this does not injure the blacks? Theirs, in its estate, is an unhappy lot. Shut out by a still lingering prejudice from many social advantages, a despised class, they feel this proscription for the Public Schools as a peculiar brand. Beyond this, it deprives them of those healthful animating influences which would come from a participation in the studies of their white brethren. It adds to their discouragements. It widens their separation from the rest of the community, and postpones the great day of reconciliation which is sure to come.¹

Sumner's argument did not sway the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in 1849. Massachusetts, however, did outlaw school segregation in 1855 after black and white abolitionists organized a propaganda campaign to persuade the Massachusetts legislature to enact a law prohibiting school segregation.²

The Massachusetts model did not become the basis of race relations in this country. Instead, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, a Louisiana case set the standard. In 1892, Homer Plessy refused to sit in the railroad car designated for blacks. By refusing to move, Plessy violated an 1890 Louisiana law, which provided for equal but separate accommodations for the white and "colored" races on state railroads. Plessy, tried and convicted at the local level, took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1896, the Court determined in Plessy v. Ferguson that laws separating the races did not imply that one race was inferior to another. The Court concluded that if blacks felt inferior it was "...solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."³

Fifty-eight years passed before Plessy was overturned in arguably the most well-known school desegregation case of all, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In 1954, almost one hundred years after the legal desegregation of the Massachusetts schools, the Supreme Court struck down Plessy by declaring that separate schools were inherently unequal. Attorney Thurgood Marshall, like Sumner, argued that it was the intangible benefits that made the difference between segregated and desegregated schools. Marshall concluded that the mere fact of segregation sanctioned by law implied the inferiority of African Americans and prohibited children from the opportunity to "...learn to live, work and cooperate with children representative of approximately 90% of the population of the society in which they live; to develop citizenship skills; and to adjust themselves personally and socially in a setting comprising a cross-section of the dominant population."4

Unlike Sumner, Marshall succeeded in convincing the Court. A year later in Brown II, the second part of the decision relating to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the court attempted to define the process by which desegregation would take place by directing federal district courts to enforce the desegregation of schools "with all deliberate speed." This left the door open for those in opposition to school desegregation to delay the process almost indefinitely.

Ten years later most southern schools, including the New Kent School and the George W. Watkins School, remained segregated. While African-American schools, such as the George W. Watkins School, could boast of a faculty that genuinely cared about its students, they still suffered from inadequate resources. It was at this time that Dr. Calvin C. Green, president of the New Kent County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and father of three, decided it was time to take on the local school board in hopes of forcing the county to provide better educational opportunities for all students.

¹ Jeffrey C. Stewart, 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 91.
² Susan Cianci Salvatore, Waldo Martin, Vicki Ruiz, Patricia Sullivan, and Harvard Sitkoff,
Racial Desegregation in Public Education in the United States Theme Study (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 2000), 8.
³ Eric Foner and John A. Garraty,
The Readers Companion to American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991), 844.
4 Mark V. Tushnet, ed.,
Thurgood Marshall: His Speeches, Writings, Arguments, Opinions, and Reminiscences (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2001), 22.



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