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Brown v. Board of Education - Oral History - Part 2

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This collection provides a look at the background surrounding the landmark United States Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka from those who, in one way or another, were involved with the cases before they reached the Supreme Court, or who were involved in or affected by the ruling in some way (i.e., victims, plaintiff, and beneficiaries). Those interviewed included former students, community leaders and activists, attorneys, judges, and others affected by the outcome of the case.

This collection also contains information on the following topics: segregation; discrimination; the Topeka school system; the history of Topeka’s African American community; the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway; the U.S. military; and World War II.



Brown, et al., v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al.
Belton v. Gebhart, Bulah v. Gebhart
Bolling, et al., v. C. Melvin Sharpe, et al.
Briggs v. Elliott
Davis, et al., v. Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors

Brown, et al., v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al.

In Kansas there were eleven school integration cases, dating from 1881 to 1949, prior to Brown in 1954. In many instances the schools for African American children were substandard facilities with out-of-date textbooks and often no basic school supplies.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 dual education system. In the fall of 1950 members of the Topeka, Kansas, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) 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 move Topeka public school officials to simply choose to integrate schools because the Kansas law did not require segregated public schools. The law permitted segregated schools only at the elementary level in first class cities (cities with populations of 15,000 or more). Filing suit against the 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 their twenty children.

Each plaintiff was instructed to watch the paper for enrollment dates and take their child or children to the school for whites only nearest to their home. Once they attempted enrollment and faced denial, they were to report back to the NAACP. This would provide the 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., v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The Federal District Court ruled in favor of the school board and the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. At the Supreme Court level, their case was combined with other NAACP cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. The combined cases became known as Oliver L. Brown, et al., v. The Board of Education of Topeka, et al.

On May 17, 1954, at 12:52 p.m., the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that it was unconstitutional, violating the 14th Amendment, to separate children in public schools for no other reason than their race. Brown v. The Board of Education helped change America 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 re-segregation. 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 ruling of 1954.

This 1979 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 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York. In the late 1980s 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 Schools’ petition to once again hear an appeal in the Brown case. In June of 1993 the U.S. Supreme Court again declined to review the case, and it was remanded back to the U.S. District Court in Topeka. A court-ordered desegregation plan to remove any remaining vestiges of school segregation was issued on July 25, 1994.

As a result, the school district 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 the new schools is named for the Scott family attorneys for their role in the Brown case and civil rights. It is the Scott Computer and Mathematics Magnet School. Unitary status was at last granted to Topeka Unified School District #501 on July 27, 1999.

Belton v. Gebhart, Bulah v. Gebhart

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 suburban 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 Wilmington. 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 daily, 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 Louise 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 Collins 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.

Bolling, et al., v. C. Melvin Sharpe, et al.

Since its inception, Washington, D.C., has been home to a significant population of African Americans. Yet as the nation's capital, the District of Columbia did not set a positive example regarding race relations; it merely followed custom. Washington, D.C., 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 1951 the traditional African American community leadership (i.e., churches, sororities, and 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 rights 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 junior high school for white students. The school, named for John Phillip Sousa, was a large modern building, boasting of multiple basketball courts and spacious classrooms. At that moment Gardner Bishop asked for admittance for the African American students that had accompanied him to see Sousa Junior 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; after his trip to Sousa Junior High, it was time for action. He approached attorney Charles Hamilton Houston on their behalf. The idea was to request a facility, equal to that of Sousa Junior High, be constructed for their children. Houston worked on the case independently; it was not an NAACP case.

In 1950, while preparing the Bolling case, Charles Houston was stricken with a heart attack. As a result, he asked a 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, in U.S. District Court, the case of Bolling v. Sharpe was filed. This was named for Spottswood Thomas Bolling, one of the children who accompanied Gardner Bishop to Sousa Junior 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.

Briggs v. Elliott

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 principal and a teacher at Silver Elementary School and also served 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. Rev. DeLaine approached Clarendon County school officials but failed to secure school buses. African American children did not have buses; they had to walk, sometimes as far as eight miles each way to school.

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 continual repairs 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 the 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. It would give Clarendon’s African Americans not just buses, but would seek 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 state’s 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 Waites Waring, who sided with the petitioner’s concerns, was ostracized by most of white South Carolina and was the object of a joint resolution of the South Carolina General Assembly condemning him; he retired as soon as he was eligible and left his native state for New York, where he lived the rest of his life.

Davis, et. al., v. Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors

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. Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians in Virginia operated private high schools. The public schools for blacks were elementary schools (grades one through eight) 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 the 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 fund-raising efforts of the Farmville Colored Women’s Club, the Robert Moton School added grades nine through twelve by 1947. Prior to 1947, African Americans "graduated" from high school after the eleventh grade. Given that the number of school years was fewer than in the white schools, African Americans from neighboring counties came to Farmville to attend 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 Tarpaper-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 Jones, 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 Dr. 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 family 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 Reverend 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 Jones, 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 Jones 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, Oliver Hill’s colleague, Spottswood Robinson, citing the student’s complaint, filed a suit in Federal Court. Surprisingly when the case was filed, it did not carry the name of Barbara Jones as its lead plaintiff. It was by happenstance that the first student listed was a ninth grade girl, the 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.