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Brown vs Board of Education


Case Summaries


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Five cases from Delaware, Kansas, Washington, D.C., South Carolina and Virginia were appealed to the United States Supreme Court when none of the cases was successful in the lower courts. The Supreme Court combined these cases into a single case which eventually became Brown v. Board of Education. The following summarizes the Virginia case.   (Click here for the full text of the Brown Decision)



Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County



One hundred and seventeen African-American high school students chose to strike rather than attend all-black Moton High, which was in need of physical repair. The students initially wanted a new building with indoor plumbing to replace the old school. Strike leader, Barbara Johns, enlisted the assistance of NAACP attorneys. As a result a suit was filed in 1951 on behalf of the students. The U.S. District Court ordered equal facilities be provided for the black students but "denied the plaintiffs admission to the white schools during the equalization program." Attorneys for the NAACP filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.



In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the only way an African American could receive a high school diploma in the early twentieth century was by attending a private academy. Private high schools were operated by Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians in Virginia. The public schools for blacks were elementary schools (grades 1-8) operated by county school boards. The fact that school boards were county affiliated rather than city or town affiliated might have something to do with the relatively rural population of most school districts.


The history of activism in Richmond dates back to the streetcar boycotts in 1900s. When the privately owned streetcar lines attempted to segregate the cars, blacks boycotted them for two years. This impasse was resolved when the Commonwealth of Virginia passed laws making segregation of public facilities legal. Streetcar companies had to comply with the new law. African Americans were not prepared to fight the state legislature at this point in time.


In Prince Edward County public schooling for blacks was considered "progressive" compared to neighboring counties. Due partly to the fundraising efforts of the Farmville Colored Women's Club, the Robert Moton School added grades 9-12 by 1947. Prior to 1947, African Americans "graduated" from high school after the 11th grade. Given that the number of school years were fewer than in the white schools, African Americans from neighboring counties came to Farmville to attend the Robert Moton High School in the 1930s and 1940s. The original building was a two-story frame building that later became the elementary school once the "new" Robert Moton High School was built in 1943 across the street. The "new" school was never adequately large enough, necessitating the use of tar paper covered buildings hastily constructed on the campus for use as classrooms. It was the use of these temporary buildings as classroom space that sparked a student strike in 1951.


The student leaders responsible for the strike were from families who were all long-term residents of the surrounding area. One student leader, Barbara Johns, had a family distinguished by activism. Barbara was the niece of Vernon Johns, the legendary minister who served in the Dexter Street Baptist Church the ten years prior to Martin Luther King, Jr. Vernon Johns was an outspoken critic of segregation and involved in numerous protest attempts throughout his career. Even though he was in Montgomery, Alabama, at the time of the student strike, community members reported that he was influential in giving advice to the striking students. His wife was a former teacher in the Robert Moton High School, and he still had numerous familial ties in the community of Farmville and the surrounding area.


The Johns family knew the social politics of the area. Farmville is an hour and a half southwest of Richmond, on the same route Robert E. Lee followed during his retreat from Richmond in the spring of 1865. Farmville is just two miles from where the Confederacy made its last stand at the battle of Sailor's Creek. Even in 1950 life in the rural south still carried certain risks for African American adults whose livelihoods were inextricably linked to a group of whites who controlled commerce in the area. Opinion was divided within the African American community over whether segregated conditions in Farmville should be challenged.


The Rev. Francis Griffin considered the situation unacceptable and used every opportunity to address the need for change. As President of the local NAACP and Chair of the Moton High School PTA he was well positioned to push for change. Together with school principal M. Boyd Jones, they petitioned the school board to address the obvious disparity in the schools by asking for a new building to replace Moton High. After several months of inactivity by school officials the stage was set for the Moton students, frustrated with their circumstances, to take action.


On April 23, 1951 a student strike organized largely by Barbara Johns was underway. School principal Jones was called away by a false claim of racial problems at the bus station downtown. With him absent the students assembled under pretense of a school sanctioned gathering and Barbara spoke of the plan to strike. The strike amounted to students walking out of school with instructions, from strike leadership, not to leave the school grounds. Some of the students were given signs to carry that expressed their goal of better facilities. With the strike underway Barbara Johns and classmate Carrie Stokes sought legal counsel from the NAACP in Richmond. The students received a response in the form of a commitment by NAACP attorney, Oliver Hill agreeing to meet with them. The strike lasted ten days. Hill promised that action would be taken on their behalf. With that, the students returned to school on May 7, 1951.


After a month of legal maneuvering a suit was filed in Federal Court by Oliver Hill's colleague, Spottswood Robinson citing the student's complaint. Surprisingly, when the case was filed it did not carry the name of Barbara Johns as its lead plaintiff. It was by happenstance that the first student listed was a ninth grade girl, daughter of a local farmer. Her name was Dorothy Davis. The Virginia case was filed as Dorothy E. Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. After filing this case Spottswood Robinson immediately traveled to South Carolina where the case of Briggs v. Elliot was about to be heard in another Federal Court.


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South Carolina

Briggs v. Elliot



Twenty African Americans from Clarendon County, South Carolina first filed a suit in 1951 against school officials on behalf of their children. With the help of the NAACP, they sought to secure better schools, equal to those provided for white children. The U.S. District Court found the black schools were clearly inferior compared to white schools: buildings were no more than wooden shacks, transportation and educational provisions did not meet basic needs, and teachers' salaries were less than those received in white schools. Further, the lower court "...ordered the defendants to immediately equalize the facilities...[but the children were] denied admission to the white schools during the equalization program." As a result their case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.



The legal action in Summerton, South Carolina began in 1947. Ironically the push to take action derived from a fortuitous encounter between Rev. James Hinton, president of the South Carolina NAACP and Rev. J.A. DeLaine a local school teacher. The NAACP leader, through a speech attended by DeLaine, issued a challenge to find the courage to test the legality of the discriminatory practices aimed at African American school children.


Rev. J. A. DeLaine was teaching in St. Paul Rural Primary School and also serving several small churches as an A.M.E. Minister. (Initially schools for African Americans in Clarendon County began in their churches and gradually moved to separate buildings. Therefore, many schools and churches had the same names such as Liberty Hill A.M.E. and Liberty Hill Elementary.) For these children and their parents the issue was bus-transportation to school. African American children did not have buses and they sometimes had to walk as far as eight miles each way to school. Rev. DeLaine approached Clarendon County school officials but failed to secure school buses.


School officials justified their refusal by claiming that since the African American community did not pay (collectively) much in taxes it would be unfair to expect white citizens to provide transportation for African American school children. Even a letter writing campaign launched by Rev. DeLaine yielded no assistance from state educational officials. Because of the urgent need African American parents collected donations within their community and purchased a second-hand school bus. The continuous repairs required on the bus proved to be too costly for the parents.


Again frustration prompted Rev. DeLaine to seek relief from the District Superintendent L.B. McCord. It was hoped that since McCord was a fellow minister he would be sympathetic. However, he refused to even consider Rev. DeLaine's request. Remembering the words of Rev. Hinton, the NAACP state president, DeLaine knew it was time to take legal action.


On March 16, 1948 local attorney Harold Boulware together with Thurgood Marshall, filed in U.S. District Court the case of Levi Pearson v. County Board of Education. Their case was dismissed on the technical matter of where Mr. Pearson paid his taxes. His land straddled more than one school district. The court ruled that Pearson had no legal standing because he paid taxes in District 5 and his children attended school in districts 22 and 26.


This did not stop Rev. DeLaine and by 1949 he had obtained enough signatures to file a second case. The national office of the NAACP agreed to sponsor their case. In this case Clarendon County's African Americans were seeking not just buses, but educational equality. In May of 1950 with the help of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the case of Briggs v. Elliott was filed. Two months later, the plaintiffs attorneys moved from simply pursuing equalization of facilities and obtaining buses, to attacking segregation.


The court ruled against the petitioners and ordered schools to be equalized, focusing on equalization and ignoring the broader question of the constitutionality of segregation. The states action resulted in an NAACP appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Briggs case became part of the Brown litigation.


The Briggs case evoked an extreme reaction. All of the petitioners suffered swift and severe hardships for their courage. Harry Briggs was fired from his job. Annie Gibson lost her job as a motel maid and her husband lost land that had been in his family for eight decades. Rev. DeLaine saw his home burned to the ground. Federal Judge Walter Waring, who sided with the petitioners concerns, was forced to leave the state by a joint resolution of the South Carolina House of Representatives.


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Belton v. Gebhart (Bulah v. Gebhart)



First petitioned in 1951, these two cases involved two black schools: Howard High School in Wilmington and a one-room elementary school in Hockessin. Many African-American students rode the bus nearly an hour to attend Howard High School. The school was over-crowded, located in the industrial area of town, and sorely lacking in educational areas. Children attending the elementary school in Hockessin wanted equal transportation to their one-room school. Relief for the initial requests for improvement was denied. The two cases were combined, both seeking integration because "the Negro schools were inferior with respect to teacher training, pupil-teacher ratio, curricular and extra-curricular activities, physical plant, and time and distance involved in travel." Their unsuccessful challenge in U.S. District Court was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.



The final challenge to segregated schools in Delaware came by way of two separate cases with identical issues. One case developed in the suburb of Claymont and another in the rural community of Hockessin.


Segregated Howard High School was a continual source of frustration for African American parents in the Wilmington suburb of Claymont. Although their community had a well maintained school in a picturesque setting with spacious facilities, African American children could not, by law, attend the Claymont school. Instead they were transported daily on a twenty mile round trip to Howard High School located in an undesirable section of Willmington. Not only was the distance an adverse factor, class size, teacher qualifications in terms of advanced degrees, and the incomplete curriculum also angered African American parents. Students interested in vocational training courses had to walk several blocks to the run-down Carver annex regardless of the weather.


In March of 1951, eight African American parents sought legal counsel from attorney Louis Redding. At his urging these parents asked state education officials to admit their children to the local Claymont School, they were denied. Consequently, Redding agreed to take their case.


In the rural community of Hockessin, Mrs. Sarah Bulah only wanted equal opportunity for their adopted daughter, Shirley Barbara. While a bus carrying white children passed her home each day, she had to drive Shirley two miles to an old one-room schoolhouse designated for African American children. Sarah Bulah decided to share her concern with state officials, so she wrote to the Department of Public Instruction and to the Governor. Their replies reaffirmed that no bus transportation would be provided because "colored" children could not ride on a bus serving white children. Undaunted, Mrs. Bulah made an appointment with attorney Louis Redding.


In both cases attorney Redding was ready to challenge the notion of not permitting integrated schools. Both Sarah Bulah and the parents from Claymont including Ethel Belton were prepared to sue in order to change state law. Their case would name the State Board of Education as the principal defendant. The Board members were specifically charged. The first name among the members was Francis B. Gebhart. The resulting cases were called Belton v. Gebhart and Bulah v. Gebhart.


Judge Collin Seitz, in this case ruled that the "separate but equal" doctrine had been violated and that the plaintiffs were entitled to immediate admission to the white school in their communities. Although a victory for the named plaintiffs, his decision had not dealt the sweeping blow to segregation they had hoped for. The decision did not apply broadly throughout Delaware.


The Belton and Bulah cases would ultimately join four other NAACP cases in the Supreme Court ruling in Brown.

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Washington, D.C.
Bolling v. Sharp



The petition in this case was on behalf of eleven African-American junior high school youths who were refused admission to all-white schools. Their school was grossly unequal in terms of physical condition, the location in a rundown part of the city, and lacking adequate educational materials. Led by local activist Gardner Bishop a suit was filed on behalf of these students in 1951. Unsuccessful in the lower courts, their case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.



Since its inception, Washington, D.C. has been home to a significant population of African Americans. Yet as the nations capitol, the District of Columbia, did not set a positive example regarding race relations. Washington, D.C. merely followed custom and was firmly rooted in racial segregation.


After World War II, the country moved to integrate the military, Washington, D.C. seemed uninterested in challenging racial custom. By 1950 the traditional African American community leadership, i.e., churches, sororities, lodges, had failed to organize any protest against the run down facilities that served as schools for their children. Even most parents with "good" wages from government jobs remained silent in the matter of substandard segregated schools. That same year the owner of a local African American barbershop stepped forward and filled the leadership void in the matter of better schools for their children. His name was Gardner Bishop, a man who simply knew civil right from social wrong.


It has been reported that on September 11, 1950 Bishop led a group of eleven African American children to the city's new high school for white students. The school, named for John Phillip Sousa, was a large modern building, boasting spacious classrooms and multiple basketball courts. When the group reached the high school, Gardner Bishop requested admittance for the African American students that had accompanied him to see Sousa High School. It seemed clear that the building could accommodate a higher enrollment. His request was denied, ensuring the African American students a continued unequal educational experience.


Bishop had been organizing, parents to take action regarding the poor school their children were assigned to attend. After his field trip to Sousa High, it was time for action. He approached Attorney Charles Houston on their behalf. The idea was to request a facility, equal to that of Sousa High, be constructed for their children. Houston worked on this case independently; it was not a NAACP case.


In 1950 while preparing the Bolling case, Charles Hamilton Houston suffered a heart attack. As a result he asked colleague and friend James Nabritt, Jr. to help Gardner Bishop and his group. At that point the idea of equalization of facilities was rejected by Nabritt and replaced by a challenge to segregation per se.


In 1951 the case of Bolling v. Sharpe was filed in U.S. District court. This case was named for Spottswood Thomas Bolling, one of the children who accompanied Gardner Bishop to Sousa High. He was among those denied admission based solely on race.


Although unsuccessful, Nabritt trusted his concept of an all out attack on segregation. The Bolling case would later meet with success as one of the cases combined under Brown v. Board of Education.


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Brown v. Board of Education



In the fall of 1950 members of the Topeka, Kansas, Chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) agreed to again challenge the "separate but equal" doctrine governing public education. The strategy was conceived by the chapter president, McKinley Burnett, attorneys Charles Scott, John Scott, Charles Bledsoe, Elisha Scott and NAACP chapter secretary Lucinda Todd. For a period of two years prior to legal action Burnett had attempted to persuade Topeka school officials to integrate their schools. This lawsuit was a final attempt.


Their plan involved enlisting the support of fellow NAACP members and personal friends as plaintiffs in what would be a class action suit filed against the Board of Education of Topeka Public Schools. A group of thirteen parents agreed to participate on behalf of twenty of their children. Each plaintiff was to watch the paper for enrollment dates and take their child to the elementary school for white children that was nearest to their home. Once they attempted enrollment and were denied, they were to report back to the NAACP. This provided attorneys with the documentation needed to file a lawsuit against the Topeka School Board.



In Kansas there were eleven school integration cases from 1881 to 1949 prior to the 1950's Brown case. In many instances the schools for African American children were substandard facilities with out-of-date textbooks and often no basic school supplies. What was not in question was the dedication and qualifications of the African American teachers and principals assigned to these schools.


In response to numerous unsuccessful attempts to ensure equal opportunities for all children, African American community leaders and organizations stepped up efforts to change the education system. In the fall of 1950 members of the Topeka, Kansas, Chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) agreed to again challenge the "separate but equal" doctrine governing public education.


The strategy was conceived by the chapter president, McKinley Burnett, the secretary Lucinda Todd and attorneys Charles Scott, John Scott, and Charles Bledsoe. For a period of two years Mr. Burnett had attempted to have Topeka Public School officials simply chose to integrate schools because the Kansas law did not require segregated public schools only at the elementary level in first class cities. Filing suit against the school district was a final attempt to secure integrated public schools.


Their plan involved enlisting the support of fellow NAACP members and personal friends as plaintiffs in what would be a class action suit filed against the Board of Education of Topeka Public Schools. A group of thirteen parents agreed to participate on behalf of twenty of their children.


Each plaintiff was to watch the paper for enrollment dates and take their child to the school for white children that was nearest to their home. Once they attempted enrollment and were denied, they were to report back to the NAACP. This provided attorneys with the documentation needed to file a lawsuit against the Topeka School Board. The African American schools appeared equal in facilities and teacher salaries but some programs were not offered and some textbooks were not available. In addition, there were only four elementary schools for African American children as compared to eighteen for white children. This made attending neighborhood schools impossible for African American children. Junior and Senior high schools were integrated.


Oliver Brown was assigned as lead plaintiff, principally because he was the only man among the plaintiffs. On February 28, 1951 the NAACP filed their case as Oliver L. Brown et. al. vs. The Board of Education of Topeka (KS). The District Court ruled in favor of the school board and the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the Topeka case made its way to the United States Supreme Court, it was combined with the other NAACP cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C. The combined cases became known as Oliver L. Brown et. al. vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, et. al.


On May 17, 1954 at 12:52 p.m. the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that it was unconstitutional and violated the 14th amendment to separate children in public schools for no other reason than their race. Brown vs. Board of Education helped change American education forever.


In 1979 a group of young attorneys were concerned about a policy in Topeka Public Schools that allowed open enrollment. Their fear was that this would lead to resegregation. They believed that with this type of choice white parents would shift their children to other schools creating predominately African American or predominately white schools. As a result these attorneys petitioned the federal court to reopen the original Brown case to determine if Topeka Public Schools had in fact ever complied with the Court's 1954 ruling.


This case is commonly known as Brown III. These young attorneys were Richard Jones, Joseph Johnson and Charles Scott, Jr. (son of one of the attorneys in the original case) in association with Chris Hansen from the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) in New York. In the late 1980's Topeka Public Schools were found to be out of compliance. On October 28, 1992, after several appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Topeka Public School's petition to once again hear the Brown case. As a result the school was directed to develop plans for compliance and have since built three magnet schools. These schools are excellent facilities and make every effort to be racially balanced. Ironically one of these new schools is named for the Scott family attorneys because of their role in the Brown case and civil rights. It is the Scott Computer and Mathematics Magnet School.


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