Education from LVA

Education: Segregated Public Schools Are Not Equal

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  • Frontis and title page from <em>Educational Laws of Virginia; The Personal Narrative of Mrs. Margaret Douglass . . . </em>Boston: J. P. Jewitt & Co. 1854. General Collections, Library of Congress, Washington D.C., LOC
    Margaret Douglass Taught Free Black Children
  • School bus in Louisa County, Virginia,1935, LC-DIG-ppmsca-05512; Elementary school for whites, with automobile parked at entrance, South Boston, Virginia, between 1920 and 1940, LC-USZ62-99293; Elementary school for Afro-Americans, South Boston, Virginia, between 1920 and 1940, LC-USZ62-99294; Visual Materials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,
    Halifax County School Photos
  • Va. Equal Pay War Launched, <em>Afro American and Richmond Planet,</em> November 5, 1938. Petitions for Equal Teachers' Pay, <em>Journal and Guide </em>(Norfolk), November 5, 1938., LVA
    Aline Black Fought for Equal Pay
  • Segregation's Citadel Unbreached in 4 Years,<em> Southern School News # </em>(May 1958): pp., Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia., LVA
    School Desegregation Map
  • Pamunkey Indian School, Pamunkey Indian Reservation, King William County, School Buildings Service Photograph Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia., LVA
    Pamunkey Schoolhouse
  • Robert Kennedy in Prince Edward. From <em>Southern School News</em> 10, no. 12 (June 1964):10, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia., LVA
    Robert Kennedy Visited Prince Edward County
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« Return to The Fourteenth Amendment

Segregated Public Schools Are Not Equal

Following nearly two decades of legal challenges to the effects of racial segregation in public schools and higher education, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas on May 17, 1954, that state laws requiring the separation of races in public schools were unconstitutional in spite of the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson because in reality separate schools were inherently unequal.

Even before emancipation, many African Americans understood that education and literacy were among the most precious objects of desire. Shortly after the Civil War concluded, the United States War Department's Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands established schools for former slaves, which both children and adults eagerly attended throughout the southern states. The Virginia Constitution of 1869 established the state's first free public school system, and although it was poorly funded and racially segregated, it was extremely popular with the state's African Americans and also with many poor white families who had not been able to afford to educate their children. The Constitution of 1902 required that the public schools be racially segregated, and poor quality and inadequate funding continued to characterize the state's schools for black children.

During the 1930s and 1940s, African American teachers and parents worked to improve schools and teacher salaries, but city and county school boards and governing bodies routinely appropriated significantly less money for black schools than for white schools and relied on the separate but equal doctrine of the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision to justify separation and to excuse inequality.

In 1951 students at Prince Edward County's Robert R. Moton High School went on strike to protest the severe overcrowding and poor conditions at their school. Barbara Johns and other student leaders persuaded civil rights attorneys Spottswood W. Robinson III and Oliver W. Hill to sue the county school board over the inequality and the two lawyers filed suit to seek an end to mandatory racial segregation in Virginia's public schools. It was a risky strategy to challenge decades of established law and practice, but the students' determination convinced the attorneys to take the case. Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward County went to the Supreme Court of the United States and was combined with similar cases from three other states and the District of Columbia. On May 17, 1954, the Court ruled unanimously in the combined cases styled Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that mandatory racial segregation in public schools was inherently unequal and therefore denied black students the equal protection of the law to which the Fourteenth Amendment entitled them.

People Featured in This Unit:

  • Dred Scott (ca. 1799–1858)
  • Margaret Douglass (fl. 1845–1854)
  • George Major Cook (1860–1930)
  • Walter Ashby Plecker (1861–1947)
  • John Mitchell Jr. (1863–1929)
  • Aline Black (1906–1974)
  • Oliver White Hill (1907–2007)
  • J. Lindsay Almond Jr. (1898–1986)
  • Spottswood William Robinson III (1916–1998)