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Up From Slavery: A Documentary History of Negro Education

Compiled By Rudolph Lewis

 

Thurgood Marshall with James Nabrit Jr. and George E.C. Hayes after their victory in the Brown v. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court, May 17, 1954.

 
 

 

Brown v Board of Education

May 17, 1954

 

Chief Justice Earl Warren: These cases come to us from the States of Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. They are premised on different facts and different local conditions, but a common legal question justifies their consideration together in this consolidated opinion.

In each of the cases, minors of the Negro race [called the plaintiffs]. through their legal representatives. seek the aid of the courts in obtaining admission to the public schools of their community on a nonsegregated basis. In each instance, they had been denied admission to schools attended by white children under laws requiring or permitting segregation according to race. This segregation was alleged to deprive the plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment. 

In each of the cases other than the Delaware case, a three-judge federal district court denied relief to the plaintiffs on the so-called "separate but equal" doctrine announced by this Court in [the 1896 decision] Plessy v. Ferguson Under that doctrine, equality of treatment is accorded when the races are provided substantially equal facilities, even though these facilities be separate. In the Delaware case, the Supreme Court of Delaware adhered to that doctrine, but ordered that the plaintiffs be admitted to the white schools because of their superiority to the Negro schools.

The plaintiffs contend that segregated public schools are not "equal" and cannot be made "equal." and that hence they are deprived of the equal protection of the laws. Because of the obvious importance of the question presented, the Court [agreed to hear the case]. Argument was heard in the 1952 Term, and reargument was heard this Term on certain questions [asked] by the Court.

Reargument was largely devoted to the circumstances surrounding the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. It covered exhaustively consideration of the Amendment in Congress, ratification by the states, then existing practices in racial segregation, and the views of proponents and opponents of the Amendment. This discussion and our own investigation convince us that, although these sources cast some light, it is not enough to resolve the problem with which we are faced. At best, they are inconclusive. 

The most avid proponents of the post-[Civil] War Amendments undoubtedly intended them to remove all legal distinctions among "all persons born or naturalized in the United States." Their opponents, just as certainly, were antagonistic to both the letter and the spirit of the Amendments and wished them to have the most limited effect. What others in Congress and the state legislatures had in mind cannot be determined with any degree of certainty.

An additional reason for the inconclusive nature of the Amendment's history, with respect to segregated schools, is the status of public education at that time. In the South, the movement toward free common schools, supported by general taxation, had not yet taken hold. Education of white children was largely in the hands of private groups. Education of Negroes was almost nonexistent, and practically all of the race were illiterate. 

In fact, any education of Negroes was forbidden by law in some states. Today, in contrast, many Negroes have achieved outstanding success in the arts and sciences as well as in the business and professional world. It is true that public school education at the time of the [Fourteenth] Amendment had advanced further in the North, but the effect of the [Fourteenth] Amendment on Northern States was generally ignored in the Congressional debates. 

Even in the North, the conditions of public education did not approximate those existing today. The curriculum was usually rudimentary; ungraded schools were common in rural areas; the school term was but three months a year in many states; and compulsory school attendance was virtually unknown. As a consequence. it is not surprising that there should be so little in the history of the Fourteenth Amendment relating to its intended effect on public education.

In the first cases in this Court construing the Fourteenth Amendment, decided shortly after its adoption, the Court interpreted it as [prohibiting1 all state-imposed discriminations against the Negro race. The doctrine of "separate but equal" did not make its appearance in this Court until 1896 in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. involving not education but transportation. American courts have since labored with the doctrine for over half a century [Ed.'s italics]. In this Court, there have been six cases involving the "separate but equal' doctrine in the field of public education. 

In Cumming v. County Board of Education, and Gong Lum v Rice, the validity of the doctrine itself was not challenged. In more recent cases, all on the graduate school level, inequality was found in that specific benefits enjoyed by white students were denied to Negro students of the same educational qualifications. In none of these eases was it necessary to re-examine the doctrine to grant relief to the Negro plaintiff. And in Sweatt v. Painter; the Court expressly reserved decision on the question whether Plessy v. Ferguson should be held inapplicable to public education.

In [these] cases, that question is directly presented. Here, unlike Sweatt v. Painter; there are findings [in lower State and Federal Courts] that the Negro and white schools involved have been equalized, or are being equalized, with respect to buildings, curricula, qualifications and salaries of teachers, and other "tangible"' factors. Our decision, therefore, cannot turn on merely a comparison of these tangible factors in the Negro and white schools involved in each of the cases. We must look instead to the effect of segregation itself on public education.

In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back to 1868 when the Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896 when Plessy v. Ferguson was written.

We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation. Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws.

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities. even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training. and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. 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 physic~ facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal. deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

In Sweatt v. Painter, in finding that a segregated law school for Negroes could not provide them equal educational opportunities. This Court relied in large part on "those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school." in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, the Court, in requiring that a Negro admitted to a white graduate school be treated like all other students. again resorted to intangible considerations: ". . . his ability to study. to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students. and, in general. to learn his profession." Such considerations apply with added force to children in grade and high schools.

 To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. The effect of this separation oil their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in the Kansas case by a court which nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the Negro plaintiffs:

"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. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system."

Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected.

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.

Because these are class actions [where one person represents a larger group], because of the wide applicability of this decision, and because of the great variety of local conditions, the formulation of decrees [orders of the court] in these cases presents problems of considerable complexity. On reargument, the consideration of appropriate relief [how to end school segregation] was necessarily subordinated to the primary question - the constitutionality of segregation in public education. 

We have now announced that such segregation is a denial of the equal protection of the laws. In order that we may have the full assistance of the parties in formulating decrees, the cases will be restored to the docket [put on the Court's calendar], and the parties are requested to present further argument on [these issues] for the reargument this Term. 

The Attorney General of the United States is again invited to participate. The Attorneys General of the states requiring or permitting segregation in public education will also be permitted to appear as amici curiae [friends of the Court] upon request to do so by September 15,1 954. and submission of briefs by October 1,1954.

It is so ordered.

[In 1955 in the Brown II decision, the Court ordered that U.S. public schools be desegregated with "all deliberate speed."]

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Topeka, Kansas, 1950

 

 Linda Brown's school is five miles from home. She had to cross a railroad yard and busy boulevard to wait for a bus that would take her 20 blocks to all-black Monroe Elementary in East Topeka. Her father wanted her in the nearest public school, Sumner Elementary, just four blocks away. But Linda is black, the school is for whites only. In Topeka everything public is segregated, from drinking fountains to swimming pools. Linda Carol Brown was seven years old when she became the center of a major court battle that would set a precedent for segregation laws everywhere.

After Linda's father tried unsuccessfully to enroll her in the third grade in an all-white public school further away, he teamed up with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to fight her unfair exclusion.

Linda Brown and her new class mates after Court decision

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Segregation Stigmatizes

The NAACP filed suit, but in August 1951 a three-judge federal panel threw out the case, ruling that although segregation might be detrimental to Topeka's black children, it was not illegal, since all Topeka schools had equal facilities and programs.

This Kansas law suit, along with similar law suits from Delaware, South Carolina and Virginia, were all compiled under the heading of "Brown v. the Board of Education." The momentous decision that was made two years later is still viewed as one of the most important and significant rulings that the High Court has made in the last century.

Special counsel Thurgood Marshall argued that segregation was unconstitutional because it stigmatized African Americans, thereby denying them the equal protection guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Chief Justice Earl Warren and a unanimous court agreed.

In his article "The Fight to Reverse Plessy,"  Raphael Cassimere, Ph.D., argues that Linda Brown was never admitted to the all white Topeka elementary school: http://www.tulane.edu/~so-inst/plessy4.html

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Robert Russa Moton High School

 

See Story on Robert Russa Moton High School  and the  April 1951 strike led by 16 year-old Barbara Johns. In 1953, the NAACP lost Davis v. The County School Board of Prince Edward County.

The schools in Prince Edward County were closed from 1959 to 1964, making it the only county in the nation to close its public schools for an extended period to avoid desegregation. http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/v1.htm

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. & Clarence Thomas Halt Integration

Supreme Courts Halts Racial Integration—“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” he said. His side of the debate, the chief justice said, was “more faithful to the heritage of Brown,” the landmark 1954 decision that declared school segregation unconstitutional. “When it comes to using race to assign children to schools, history will be heard,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. . . . While Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined his opinion on the schools case in full, the fifth member of the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, did not. . . . Justice Kennedy said achieving racial diversity, “avoiding racial isolation” and addressing “the problem of de facto resegregation in schooling” were “compelling interests” that a school district could constitutionally pursue as long as it did so through programs that were sufficiently “narrowly tailored.” . . . “It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much,” Justice Breyer said. . . . “This is a decision that the court and the nation will come to regret.” . . . Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg signed Justice Breyer’s opinion. Justice Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion of his own, as pointed as it was brief.  Linda Greenhouse. Justices Limit the Use of Race in School Plans for Integration. NYTimes

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Sources:

Chapter VI. "The Instruction of Negroes." In Edgar W. Knight.. A Documentary History of Education in the South before 1860. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 1953

Chapter 10 "Up From Slavery: Educational and other Rights of Negroes." In Edgar W. Knight and Clifton L. Hall. Readings in American Educational History. New York Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1951.

Many states had laws prohibiting the education of blacks; here black youngsters are turned away at the school door

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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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Home  Table History of Negro Education   Education and History

Related files: Ada Sipuel case  Heman Sweatt & Texas Law School    Lucille Bluford & University of Missouri  G.W. McLaurin & Oklahoma / Brown v. Board of Education   The Cummings Case 1899)

 Gong and Martha Lum Case 1927