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Reading 2: Challenging School Segregation
The five school desegregation cases that the Supreme Court agreed to hear in the fall of 1952 included: Brown v. Board of Education (Kansas), Briggs v. Elliot (South Carolina), Davis v. Prince Edward County School Board (Virginia), Belton v. Gebhart (Delaware), and Bolling v. Sharpe (District of Columbia). The Court heard the cases under Oliver Brown et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka and convened to hear arguments on December 9, 1952. Thurgood Marshall and the other National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) attorneys argued that segregated schools violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee to “equal protection of the laws.” Lawyers in the case from the District of Columbia charged that segregation violated students’ Fifth Amendment rights to not “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The defendants in the cases claimed that operating segregated schools was consistent with custom and law and should be maintained. While the plaintiffs insisted on immediate integration, the defendants held that ensuring that black and white schools were equal was an acceptable compromise.
Brown v. Board of Education
On February 28, 1951, the parents filed suit against the Topeka Board of Education. Brown was the first parent listed in the suit and the only male, so the case came to be named after him. The U.S. District Court for Kansas ruled against the parents, but stated in the record that segregated schools did have a negative impact on black children. Brown and the NAACP appealed to the Supreme Court on October 1, 1951.
Briggs v. Elliot
In November 1949, more than 100 people petitioned the school district to address the differences in budgets, buildings, and services available for black and white students. When the petition was ignored, the local branch of the NAACP filed Briggs v. Elliot in Federal District Court. The plaintiff whose name led the list was Harry Briggs, a service station attendant with school-age children. R. W. Elliot was the chairman of the board for the school district.
In May 1951, the court ruled against the petitioners, but told the defendants to establish equal facilities for black students. The NAACP lawyers appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, however, returned the case to the district court for a second hearing. After learning that Clarendon County was committed to building more schools for African Americans and improving teacher salaries, equipment, etc., the district court upheld its decision. In May 1952, the NAACP lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court again, this time claiming that segregation itself violated the 14th Amendment guarantee to “equal protection under the laws.”
Belton v. Gebhart, Bulah v. Gebhart
Black students living in Claymont, Delaware, spent up to an hour each way traveling the nine miles to Howard High, while the all-white Claymont High was located right in their neighborhood. Aside from the distance, Claymont School was better equipped and less crowded. With an enrollment of several hundred students, Claymont was situated on a 13-acre campus with playing fields and a running track. Howard High School, on the other hand, had 1,274 students and was in a “congested industrial area, with no play space.” 2
After seeking legal advice from NAACP lawyers in March 1951, a group of parents asked the school board to admit their children to Claymont High. When the State Board of Education refused, the parents sued the state of Delaware. The court case was filed in August 1951 as Belton v. Gebhart (a member of the State Board of Education). A second case, Bulah v. Gebhart, was brought by Sarah Bulah, a parent who had made several attempts to convince the Delaware Department of Public Instruction to provide bus transportation for black children in the town of Hockessin. Particularly galling was the fact that a bus for white children passed her house twice a day, but would not pick up her daughter. The Delaware court concluded that “the mental health problems created by racial segregation attributed to a lack of educational progress, and furthermore that under the separate but equal doctrine the plaintiffs had a right to send their children to the white schools.” This was the first time in the United States that a white high school and elementary school were ordered to admit black children.3 The State Attorney General immediately filed an appeal. On August 28, 1952, the Supreme Court of Delaware upheld the decision. In late November, the State Attorney General filed a petition for the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
Davis v. Prince Edward County School Board
On April 23, 1951, students of Moton High School led a strike to protest the overcrowded conditions, the inadequate shacks, and the school boards unwillingness to build a new high school. After consulting with the Richmond, Virginia office of the NAACP, they decided to sue for integration (not for just improved facilities) and to continue the strike until the school year ended on May 7. On May 23, attorneys filed suit in the Federal District Court for the immediate integration of Prince Edward County schools. The court’s decision in the case known as Davis v. the County School Board of Prince Edward County favored the county. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal.
Bolling v. Sharpe
By the fall of 1950, some frustrated parents had formed the Consolidated Parents’ Group and were ready to legally challenge segregated schools in the District. With the help of attorney James Nabrit, professor of law at the all-black Howard University, the group decided to take a stand at the new all-white John Philip Sousa Junior High School. In a carefully planned effort, 12-year old Spottswood Bolling and 10 other black students tried to gain admission to John Philip Sousa Junior High School on September 11. The principal refused to admit the children, so they were forced to attend the all-black Shaw Junior High. Sousa Junior High was described as a “spacious glass-and-brick structure located across the street from a golf course in a solidly residential section of Southeast Washington.”5 It had 42 classrooms, a 600-seat auditorium, a double gymnasium, and a playground with several athletic courts. Shaw, on the other hand, was “forty-eight years old, dingy, ill-equipped, and located across the street from The Lucky Pawnbroker’s Exchange.”6 It had a makeshift gymnasium, and its playground was too small for a ball field.
Nabrit filed suit on behalf of Bolling and four other plaintiffs against C. Melvin Sharpe, president of the Board of Education of the District of Columbia. Nabrit did not present evidence that the schools were inferior to the facilities for white students. Instead, the Bolling v. Sharpe case charged that segregation in itself was discrimination and violated students’ rights to due process under the Fifth Amendment. This tactic differed from the other cases because the 14th Amendment applied to states and therefore was not applicable in the District of Columbia. The District Court Judge dismissed the case. Nabrit filed an appeal and was awaiting a hearing when the Supreme Court sent word that it was interested in considering the case along with the other four segregation cases already pending.
The arguments for all five cases were completed by December 11, after only three days before the Court. The Supreme Court justices were divided on the proper decision and deliberated for nearly six months.7 In June 1953, instead of issuing a ruling, the Court told both sides to come back in the fall to argue whether the 14th Amendment was originally intended to apply to segregation in public schools. The Court reconvened on December 7 and finally issued its historic decision on May 17, 1954. More than half a century after Plessy v. Ferguson established the “separate but equal” doctrine, the Supreme Court unanimously declared that segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment and was unconstitutional. In a separate opinion for Bolling v. Sharpe, the Court stated: “In view of our decision that the Constitution prohibits the states from maintaining racially segregated public schools, it would be unthinkable that the same Constitution would impose a lesser duty on the Federal Government.”8
Questions for Reading 2
1. Which constitutional amendments did the NAACP claim that segregated schools violate? What basic rights do each of these amendments protect?
2. Briefly explain each case. How did each one reach the Supreme Court?
3. When did the Supreme Court first convene to hear arguments? When was a ruling finally issued? Why do you think it took the Court so long to decide?
4. In your own words, explain the Court's rulings. Why was a separate opinion rendered for the Bolling v. Sharpe case?
5. Several of the schools involved in the five cases (and highlighted in the reading) still stand today and have been designated National Register of Historic Places properties or National Historic Landmarks. Do you think it is important to research, document, and recognize properties associated with the Brown v. Board of Education decision? Explain your answer.
Reading 2 was compiled from Richard Kluger, Simple Justice (New York: Vintage Books, 1977); Martha Hagedorn-Krass, “Sumner Elementary School and Monroe Elementary School” (Shawnee County, Kansas) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1991; J. Tracy Power, “Summerton High School” (Clarendon County, South Carolina) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1994; Flavia W. Rutkosky, “Howard High School” (New Castle County, Delaware) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2004; Jarl K. Jackson and Julie L. Vosmik, “Robert Russa Moton High School” (Prince Edward County, Virginia) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1994; Susan Cianci Salvatore, “John Philip Sousa Junior High School” (Washington, D.C.) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001; and Susan Cianci Salvatore, Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Vicki L. Ruiz, Patricia Sullivan, Harvard Sitkoff, “Racial Desegregation in Public Education in the United States,” National Historic Landmarks Theme Study, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2000.
1 J. Tracy Power, “Summerton High School ” (Clarendon County , South Carolina) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1994), 7.