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Inquiry Question





Table of

Setting the Stage

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which declared “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion of the Unites States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.”¹ Although the Emancipation Proclamation declared the slaves free² it was the 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution that legally guaranteed their rights. The 14th Amendment declared the former slaves citizens and proclaimed that states could not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The 15th Amendment guaranteed the right of all male citizens over the age of 21, regardless of race, the right to vote. An era of substantial freedom and promise for African Americans was ushered in. For the first time the law guaranteed equal access to facilities such as streetcars and public schools. The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by the federal government to assist the former slaves with food and medical attention, and to help establish schools. However, the South attempted to reassert some of the control they lost as a result of the Civil War by segregating (or separating) the races in all aspects of public life. “Jim Crow,” a system defined by the “the practice of legal and extralegal racial discrimination against African Americans,” would curtail many of the freedoms which African Americans³ experienced following the Civil War. During the 1890s the situation for African Americans became increasingly worse throughout the South as race relations deteriorated, violence increased, and the many advances toward integration were virtually eliminated.

It was not until the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that the separate but equal doctrine was officially written into law. The case was based upon the refusal of Homer Adolf Plessy to use the segregated train car assigned to African Americans, and as a result, was imprisoned for the violation of a Louisiana statute. His case thereafter went to the nation’s highest court, the Supreme Court, and the judges considered the issue of “separate but equal” in relation to the 14th Amendment. In the Plessy case, the Supreme Court ruled that separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were equal. Plessy v. Ferguson stood as the case by which separation of the races was legally sanctioned in the United States and denied African Americans access to many of the white facilities that had been racially integrated after the Civil War.

During the first half of the 20th century educational facilities for African Americans remained in a dire state; although facilities were separate, they were oftentimes not equal. Schools attended by African-American children generally were over-crowded, under-funded, with materials and facilities being old and in disrepair. The injustices suffered by African-American schoolchildren eventually led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to fight against unequal school facilities. Five separate cases contesting inequalities in public education were considered under Oliver Brown et. al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka (Brown v. Board) in 1954.4 Brown v. Board ultimately overturned the decision made in Plessy v. Ferguson.

¹ Quoted in George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi, America: A Narrative History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), 720.
² Despite this expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.

³ Quoted in Charles D. Lowery and John F. Marsalek, eds.
Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights: From Emancipation to the Present (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992), 281.
4 Brown v. Board consolidated separate cases from four states. A fifth public school segregation case from Washington , DC was considered in the context of Brown , but resulted in a separate opinion. References to Brown in this lesson plan collectively refer to all five cases.



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