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History of Segregated Education
in America

Roberts v. Boston

Roberts v. Boston was the first case to challenge segregation in public schools. Five-year-old Sarah Roberts was barred from her local primary school because she was black, and was forced to travel a great distance to get to school every morning. Her father sued the city of Boston to allow his daughter to attend a school in their neighborhood. The case was heard by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on Dec. 4, 1849. The following April, the court ruled that school segregation was constitutional. However, the fight to end public school segregation did not end there. The Equal School Association continued intense lobbying efforts that eventually led to a law abolishing school segregation in Massachusetts. Despite this victory, Roberts v. Boston would haunt civil rights leaders many years later, when some of the case's arguments would be used to prove the constitutionality of segregation.

Brown v. Board of Education Orientation Handbook-Court Cases in Prelude to Brown, 1849-1949
Maintained by the Washburn University Law Library for the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, this site provides overviews of the court cases challenging segregated education that preceded Brown v. Board of Education and includes links to the relevant laws and court opinions from each case.

Dred Scott v. Sanford

Dred Scott was a slave of a military surgeon, and as a slave, he lived for nearly eight years in "free" territories. In 1847, Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued for their freedom claiming that their years living in free states and territories granted them a right to freedom. In 1850, a jury decided that the Scotts should be free, but their owner appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court, which overturned the second district's ruling. In 1857, the United States Supreme Court heard the case. Seven of the nine justices ruled against Scott, finding that because he was a descendent of slaves, he was not a citizen of the United States, and had no right to bring any case to the Supreme Court. Speaking for the majority, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled: "...We think they [people of African ancestry] are ... not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word 'citizens' in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States...." This ruling set the stage for blacks to be treated as second-class citizens.

Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857)
This comprehensive site from Street Law & the Supreme Court Historical Society includes teaching recommendations based on time available, copies of original documents, maps of Scott's travels, and diagrams of how the case went through the Supreme Court.

Jim Crow Laws

The term "Jim Crow" was used to refer to the laws and actions that deprived blacks of their civil rights and that resulted in both de jure and de facto segregation. De jure segregation are laws written to enforce the separation of blacks and whites by employing different facilities for different races, and sometimes merely barring blacks from certain activities and public places. De facto segregation exists when society, politics, economy, and the culture in general enforce the separation of people based on their race or ethnicity, even though there are no laws to enforce this separation.

The combination of legal and de facto segregation under Jim Crow enforced the separation of the races in almost every aspect of public life. Examples of de facto and de jure segregation:

  • Seventeen states passed laws racially segregating education.
  • Teachers in Virginia were imprisoned if they were caught instructing free black students.
  • North Carolina and Texas required libraries to establish and maintain a separate building in which blacks were permitted to read separate books.
  • Teachers in Oklahoma were fined for teaching in any institution that had pupils of different races.
  • Kentucky required that all textbooks issued to a black student never be reissued or used by white students, and vice versa.
  • Southern states refused to establish land-grant colleges for black students.

Jim Crow Laws
Gathered by staff of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historical Site, this resource includes examples of Jim Crow laws in place throughout the country from the 1880s to the 1960s.  

The Freedmen's Bureau

In March 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands-also known as the Freedman's Bureau-was established by Congress. The bureau was created based on the findings of the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, a group whose task was to determine how to deal with emancipated slaves. The commission concluded that a bureau should be set up for one year to assist former slaves in their adjustment to freedom. The Freedmen's Bureau provided relief in the form of rations, hospitals and direct medical assistance, and the establishment of an education system for blacks. The bureau acted as a catalyst between Northern relief and charity societies and local Southern governments and individuals to provide the funding needed to establish and build schools, and to pay for the necessary supplies as well as teacher salaries. Although the bureau's life was short, the gains it made were significant. By 1869, more than 3,000 new schools for black children had been opened as well as dozens of evening and private schools, and the first black colleges in the South.

Emancipation Proclamation 

"The Freedmen's Bureau"
Read this article by W.E.B. DuBois published in the Atlantic Monthly in March 1901.;cc=atla;q1=Freedmen%20s%20Bureau;rgn=full%20text;view=image;seq=0362;idno=atla0087-3;node=atla0087-3%3A7   

Civil War and Reconstruction 1861-1877: The Freedmen
Sponsored by the Library of Congress, this site includes classroom activities, documents, and illustrations from the Freedmen's Bureau during Reconstruction.  


During the period of congressional Reconstruction, from 1866 to 1876, the United States declared any act of discrimination against blacks illegal. In 1866, the Civil Rights Act was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson, but Congress overrode his veto and in 1868 the 14th Amendment was ratified. The 14th Amendment overruled the Dred Scott decision and gave "all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof" the right to "life, liberty, property, and ... the equal protection of the laws." Every Southern state except Tennessee refused to ratify the amendment. In response, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act in 1867, which prohibited states from participating in Congress until they passed the measure and revised their state constitutions. Within a decade, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited discrimination in public places. However, in 1883 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and ruled that the 14th Amendment did not prohibit discrimination by private businesses or individuals.

Lesson Plans
Using Core Knowledge standards, teachers of upper-elementary grades can use these well-designed units to teach about the Reconstruction era. The first lesson plan will take several weeks; the second is shorter, requiring only five to seven days.

Reconstruction: A Time of Turbulence

The Plight of Four Million Newly Emancipated Slaves: Reconstruction 1865-1877

Plessy v. Ferguson

In 1890, Louisiana passed a Separate Car Act, which made legal the segregation of blacks and whites on railroad cars. Homer Plessy, a man of "mixed" racial descent, challenged the law by riding in a car marked for whites only. He was arrested, and the case was eventually brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 under the title Plessy v. Ferguson. Eight of the nine justices found that the Separate Car Act did not violate the U.S. Constitution, and that as long as separate facilities for each race were equal, they were legal. In his famous dissenting argument, Justice John Marshall Harlan stated that the "Constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens." Harlan asserted that segregation created a psychological sense of superiority among whites and was harmful to blacks. This same argument became a decisive factor in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Following this ruling, segregation laws increased in their severity.

Plessy v. Ferguson
Text of U.S. Supreme Court Ruling  

Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, and the NAACP

A prominent black leader, Booker T. Washington, saw the separation of the races as necessary. His famous speech, called the Atlanta Compromise, at the opening of the Cotton States Exposition in 1895 outlined his belief that blacks should attain equal rights through their own moral and economic advancement and not through constitutional laws. He believed that blacks should live, work, and learn separate from whites, and that whites should provide a "helping hand." Washington encouraged blacks to learn trades instead of going to college, and with this end in mind, he founded the Tuskegee Institute, which today is a prestigious Southern university.

Another prominent black intellectual of the times, W.E.B. DuBois, was strongly opposed to Washington's separatist ideas. DuBois was a great writer, scholar, and civil rights leader, and a staunch advocate for higher education for blacks. In 1905, he led the Niagara Movement, in which a number of black activists met in Niagara Falls, Canada, to plan strategies to achieve racial equality. Though this movement foundered within a few years, it was the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was founded in 1909 by all but one of the members of the Niagara Movement.

The NAACP began to fight cases of social injustice within the court system, organized and led the legal attack on segregation, and tried Brown v. Board of Education. During this time, the NAACP was becoming the premier organization in developing and implementing strategies to dismantle discrimination against African-Americans in all aspects of public life. The NAACP's work continues to positively affect the lives of other disenfranchised/marginalized groups including other minorities, women and girls, persons with disabilities, and gays and lesbians.

Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Compromise Speech

The Booker T. Washington Papers
All of Booker T. Washington's papers, including his autobiography, Up From Slavery, are available to view at the University of Illinois Press site:  

The Souls of Black Folks
Acclaimed as a masterpiece, this book by W.E.B. DuBois is a collection of mostly autobiographical essays dealing with the life of African-Americans from Reconstruction through the beginning of the 20th century.  

NAACP Timeline
Learn about the NAACP's efforts to fight for civil rights from 1900 to the present day.