“Segregation” - a harmless word in general, but in the context of American civil rights, it has an ugly history. As testimony to its flagrant unfairness, Earl Warren, American politician and jurist, California’s 30th Governor and the14th Chief Justice of the US, once said, “In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘Separate but Equal’ has no place.”
The start of ‘Separate but Equal’ goes back to the infamous Plessey vs Ferguson Supreme Court case of 1896, where the legal phrase actually was ‘equal but separate,’ ushering in an era of state-sponsored segregation in the US. At the center of the issue was Homer Adolph Plessey, a shoemaker from Louisiana, who was a light-skinned Creole of mixed European and African descent. Plessey’s family members were fair-skinned and could have passed as “whites” and were regarded as “free people of color.” Plessey determined he was 1/8th black because his great-grandmother was African.
As a young man, Plessey involved himself in social activism, intensifying his efforts when Louisiana passed a law in 1890, segregating public facilities, and also passing the Separate Car Act. This new law allowed railroads to provide “equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored, races.” Outraged as other members of his community, Plessey decided to test the validity of this law. On June 7, 1892, he bought a ticket and boarded a “whites only” railcar and refused to move from his seat. Louisiana Judge John H. Ferguson, who heard the case, upheld the law and deemed Plessey guilty of violating Louisiana law. Subsequently, Plessey vs Ferguson found its way to the Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court, with only one dissenting vote, ruled, on May 18, 1896, that racially separate facilities, if equal, did not violate the US Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled that segregation was not discrimination.
This undisguised official patronage to segregation through the “equal but separate,” clause, gave added strength to extending segregation to different areas of community life. However, in reality, the separate facilities assigned to African Americans were in no way equal, or even close to equal. They lacked refinement and quality found in whites-only facilities. The story of Station One School in Leon County, Florida, which was initially a whites-only school, bears testimony to this fact. By 1928, Station One School was considered “no longer suitable for the needs of the district.” The building was near-collapse and had no indoor plumbing. Heavy rains led to flooding of the building. Therefore, the county built a new school for white students, named The Chaires School, complete with new furniture, a coal heater, electricity, and a fresh well. In 1929, the white students moved into the new school and handed over the dilapidated building to black students, which continued as a “colored” school until it was permanently closed down in 1968.
Furthermore, with the condition and quality of the buildings being vital to property value, there was significant disparity between the values of properties of whites-only and those of colored people. For instance, the lengthy 1934-36 report of the Florida Superintendent of Public Instruction notes that “white school property” was $70,543,000 and African-American school property was $4,900,000. This racially biased valuation in most cases, extended to house prices too. For instance, the housing shortage 1933, led to the federal government constructing new housing for whites, thrusting blacks and people of color into urban housing projects. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, leader of the US Civil Rights Movement, said, “Segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”
Earl Warren asked, “Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal education opportunities? We believe that it does.”
This question is at the core of the issue that propelled the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs Board of Education, which proved to be a cornerstone of the civil rights movement, and paving the way for racial integration of thousands of public schools.
Leading up to the case was the situation of Linda Brown, an African American little girl who grew up in a cosmopolitan neighborhood, playing with white, Hispanic and black kids. But Linda had to go to a segregated school about 20 blocks away, when an all-white school was available 5 blocks away. Linda’s father, Reverend Oliver Brown, and several other parents tried to enroll their kids in all-whites schools, and were rejected. On the advice of a local civil rights attorney, Rev. Brown reluctantly agreed to file a desegregation case. This law suit was joined with cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington DC, and was referred to as Brown vs Board of Education, because Linda Brown’s name was alphabetically the first on the list.
Judgment at federal court level was in favor of segregation, and Brown and others took the case up to the U Supreme Court. Close on three years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the “separate but equal” doctrine had no place in American public education. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court made a unanimous ruling that separating children on a racial basis was unconstitutional, because it denied black kids the guarantee of equal protection under the law as stated in the 14th Amendment. Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Following this landmark ruling, the doors of whites-only schools gradually opened for black kids and other kids of color. By 1988, 43% of black kids attended previously whites-only schools
As Georgetown University law professor Sheryll Cashin said, “The biggest legacy is that the case transformed the consciousness of the country.” As she explained, “For the first time in American jurisprudence, the court puts forth a vision of a public institution that's open to all.”