Court ruling changed face of education

May 16, 2004|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

Separate and far from equal.

That's how the U.S. Supreme Court viewed a large portion of the nation's public schools in its landmark unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that separating black students and white students violated the "equal protection" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The full name of the case was Oliver L. Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas) et al., according to the National Park Service, which maintains one of the segregated schools from that era as an historic site.


Brown v. Board of Education, as it's better known, actually was five segregated-school complaints from four states and Washington, D.C., consolidated into one case.

According to the National Park Service, those cases were:

- Belton (and Bulah) v. Gebhart (1951, Delaware): School buses for white children refused to pick up a black girl. Another black girl was forced to take a long bus ride to get to a black school with poor facilities.

- Brown v. Board of Education (1951, Kansas): Thirteen parents sued because their children couldn't enroll in nearby white schools. Oliver Brown, who had a daughter in school, was the first plaintiff on the suit.

n Briggs v. Elliott (1951, South Carolina): Conditions at black schools were inferior to those at white schools.

- Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1952, Virginia): The only high school for black students was overcrowded and lacked certain amenities.

- Bolling v. Sharpe (1950, Washington, D.C.): Eleven black students from an overcrowded black school were refused admission to a less crowded white school.

Court rulings

A National Park Service map of the country from 1950 indicates that segregation was mandatory in states south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

In Kansas, where Brown v. Board of Education developed, and a handful of other states, segregation was permitted to some degree, the National Park Service map shows.

Lower-court judges in some of the five cases said that while the conditions for black students were poor, they didn't violate the "separate but equal" standard established in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson.

In 1892, Homer Plessy, who was seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth black, refused to leave a "whites only" car on a Louisiana train, according to a summary of the case at, a compendium of U.S. Supreme Court cases.

State social segregation laws were constitutional as long as separate accommodations for races were equal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled then.

In 1955, a year after the initial Brown v. Board of Education decision, the case came back to the U.S. Supreme Court for more direction on how to implement desegregation. That became known as Brown II.

Brown III was a 1979 effort by a group of attorneys worried that open enrollment would push Topeka Public Schools back to segregation, according to a Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research Web site.

In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Topeka Public Schools' request to hear the Brown case one more time, the Brown Foundation Web site says.

West Virginia integrates

Spokesmen for the state education departments in Maryland and Pennsylvania said they don't know of any desegregation directives their departments gave to local school districts after the 1954 decision.

The West Virginia Department of Education provided a short history of that time that said, "The West Virginia Board of Education directed local school boards to carry out desegregation plans. County school systems moved immediately to eliminate the dual school system."

The history goes on to say: "Desegregation in some regions proceeded quickly and peacefully while it took a number of lawsuits to integrate the schools of southern West Virginia. The school systems of Hampshire, Hardy and Jefferson counties were the last with black students to desegregate."

Vivian W. Fleming, 84, taught math in Jefferson County from 1948 to 1983, except for some time off to go back to college.

She remembers black students being able to choose their own schools in the county within a few years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. But it wasn't until 1965 that the schools fully were integrated for both students and teachers, Fleming said.

She said the process went well once the older, more established black teachers and principals got used to it.

Lynne Gober, the diversity facilitator for Berkeley County Schools, did not know when integration began there, but she said the school system first was fully integrated in 1963.

A Morgan County school system employee said no one at the Board of Education there is left from the transition era, but, judging by her own experience as a young student decades ago, she thinks integration went smoothly.

Line separates segregation

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