The History and Impact of School Desegregation

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  • 0:01 Segregation
  • 0:52 Plessy V. Ferguson
  • 3:28 Court Rulings
  • 4:56 Brown V. Board of Education
  • 7:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

In the first half of the 20th century, schools were racially segregated. As society progressed, the courts began to rule that segregation was not legal. In this lesson, we'll look at some of the court cases that shaped segregation and desegregation in American schools.


Imagine that you are a parent. You want your little boy to have the best chance in life. He's really smart, and you know he could make a great lawyer.

But there's a problem: because you aren't white, your son is not allowed to go to the law school in your state. In fact, he's not even allowed to go to the best elementary school in your town because those schools are for whites only.

The term segregation, when referring to American schools, usually means the century between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act when many schools were racially segregated. Whites went to white schools, and racial minorities went to schools that were generally less well-funded.

Let's look closer at the Supreme Court case that made segregation possible, Plessy v. Ferguson, and at several key cases that led to the desegregation of American schools.

Plessy v. Ferguson

Let's go back to Louisiana in the late 1800s. The old plantations, built on the backs of slaves, are falling now that the 13th Amendment has abolished slavery. Not only that, but now that slaves are free, they are sending their children to school. This doesn't sit well with many whites.

Louisiana, like many other states, decided to keep whites and blacks separate through a system of segregation. Whites and blacks were not allowed to hang out in the same public places and they weren't allowed to go to the same schools.

Among other places that were segregated, Louisiana had separate railroad cars for blacks and whites. To challenge this policy, Homer Plessy, a man who was born free, bought a first class ticket on a train and sat in the whites-only car. Despite being 7/8 white and 1/8 black, Plessy was considered black by Louisiana laws and was not allowed in the white part of the train.

After Plessy was arrested for refusing to move to the black car of the train, his lawyers argued that he had the right to sit anywhere on a train. However, Judge Howard Ferguson said that Louisiana had a right to segregate its trains.

Plessy and his supporters appealed the ruling all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1896, the Supreme Court found that the segregated railway cars offered 'separate but equal' accommodations for blacks and whites. According to the Supreme Court because the accommodations were equal, the segregation did not violate Plessy's rights.

You might be wondering what all this has to do with schools. Remember that you want your son to go to law school, but he's not allowed to because your state's law school is segregated. What does Plessy v. Ferguson, the name of the case that upheld segregation in Louisiana, have to do with that?

The Plessy v. Ferguson ruling opened the door for all sorts of segregation in America. Among the places that minorities were not allowed to mix with whites were schools. States (especially in the South) argued that they were providing 'separate but equal' schools to blacks and whites, and therefore, they did not have to allow black students to attend white schools.

The problem, of course, was that even though the accommodations on the train may have been equal, in other areas, like schools, there were definitely not equal facilities for whites and minorities. For many years, minority students were shut out of better schools as states invoked Plessy v. Ferguson to uphold segregation.

Court Rulings

Shortly after Plessy v. Ferguson, the courts became the battleground where desegregation was fought. The slaves' right to be free had been fought by soldiers and officers, but segregation would be fought with lawyers.

Only three years after Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court dealt another blow to blacks when it ruled in Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education that states could tax both blacks and whites, even if they only provided a school for whites. So, essentially, it meant that blacks had to pay taxes to fund schools, even if they weren't allowed to attend those schools.

In 1908, in Berea College v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court found that a state could make a college be segregated, even if the college wanted to include whites and minorities in their roster. Things were not looking good!

But things started to change as the 20th century got further underway. In 1936, the Maryland State Supreme Court ordered a white law school to allow a black student to enroll because there was no state-funded law school for blacks. This court case, University of Maryland v. Murray, set the stage for desegregation of other schools, as well.

A few years later, in 1947, the case Westminster School District v. Mendez said that Mexican American students could attend a white school. A federal appeals court agreed.

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