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.
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.
Brown v. Board of Education
The cases in the 1930s and 1940s were powerful, as federal and state courts began to show that segregation was not equal, and the rights of minorities to enroll in previously all-white schools began to be seen across the country. But no court case was as decisive, or as influential, with regards to desegregation than the famous 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. the Board of Education.
As we've seen, by the 1950s, segregation in schools was a hot topic, and the U.S. was split on the subject. Seventeen states required that schools be segregated, but 16 states prohibited it, and others, like Kansas, allowed segregation but did not require it. In 1951, a group of 13 parents filed a class action lawsuit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, insisting that the Board of Education desegregate schools.
The plaintiff named in the suit, Oliver Brown, was suing for his daughter to attend a local white elementary school. At the time, she had to walk six blocks to catch a bus to a black school a mile away. But the local white school was only seven blocks from her home.
The court in Kansas upheld Topeka's right to keep their schools segregated. As justification, the court referred to the Plessy v. Ferguson case. After all, if the Supreme Court had said that segregation was okay, then the Board of Education had a right to segregate.
But Brown and the other parents in the suit weren't satisfied. They appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court. The case was argued at the Supreme Court for almost two years, from 1952 to 1954. Finally, in 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, stating that the segregation of schools was not constitutional. Thus, Brown v. the Board of Education became the case that made segregation in schools illegal throughout the United States.
The battle against segregation had been won, but it was not an easy transition. For the next decade and a half, blacks still had to fight for their right to go to previously segregated schools. Sometimes, they even needed the National Guard or other armed men to protect them as they integrated schools. But slowly, schools became desegregated, and children were allowed to attend school with their neighbors of all races.
Between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act, most schools were segregated. Segregation was based on the famous Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld that 'separate but equal' facilities were legal in the U.S. In support of Plessy v. Ferguson, cases like Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education and Berea College v. Kentucky ruled that blacks could be taxed, even if they didn't have a black school available to them, and that a state could make a college segregated even if the college did not want to be.
But other cases, like University of Maryland v. Murray and Westminster School District v. Mendez ruled that segregation was not legal in district and state courts. Finally, in 1954, the Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson in the court case Brown v. the Board of Education, which ruled that schools throughout America had to be desegregated.
The objectives below can be achieved by reviewing this video lesson:
- Understand the implications of segregation
- Discuss the court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, and its impact on segregation
- Specify the turning point in the legal battle for desegregated education
- Perceive the importance of Brown v. the Board of Education