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Setting the Stage


Prior to the Civil War, African Americans were not recognized as citizens. Slaves were considered property, which could be bought, sold, or transferred. Even former slaves and Free Blacks did not automatically enjoy the protections guaranteed to U.S. citizens. In New England, slavery ended gradually after the American Revolution. In Connecticut, slavery came to a complete end in 1848, although the majority of African Americans in the state were free by 1800. Many citizens of the New England states opposed slavery, but they did not necessarily approve of integrating African Americans into society as equals under the law. The colonizationist movement was strong in these states, proposing that African Americans would never be successfully integrated into white America, and that they should be returned to a homeland created for them in Africa.

Events in Canterbury, Connecticut, in the early 1830s brought race related issues to the forefront when a young teacher named Prudence Crandall admitted an African-American student to her boarding school and subsequently opened a school strictly for black females. The town's negative and ultimately violent reaction sparked heated debate, especially between colonizationists, who supported sending Free Blacks to colonies in Africa, and abolitionists. The events received national attention through newspapers such as The Liberator.

After the Civil War, African Americans continued to suffer economically, politically, and socially. Even with ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which guaranteed rights of citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States," harsh discrimination continued. In 1896 the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson established the "separate but equal" doctrine, which provided a legal basis for segregated schools. Theoretically, African-American students were to receive a comparable education to white children, but this rarely was the case. The "separate but equal" policy continued until the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka determined that this policy violated the rights of African Americans to an equal education. Court-ordered desegregation affected school districts everywhere in the United States, but when nine African-American students attempted to integrate Arkansas' Little Rock Central High School amidst an angry mob in 1957, the eyes of the nation were upon them. The episode became the symbol and focus for the controversy over school segregation.

 

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