OpinionBrown v. Board at 65: The Untold Stories of the Plaintiffs & Families Who Changed America's Schools  

The Untold Stories Behind Brown v. Board: 65 Years Later, Remembering the Five Unique Lawsuits and Communities That Joined Forces to Persuade the Supreme Court

By Cheryl Brown Henderson | May 14, 2019

Nettie Hunt and her daughter Nickie sit on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court following the high court's ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case. (Getty Images)

This article is a compilation of excerpts from Recovering Untold Stories: An Enduring Legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision, a new book spotlighting the original plaintiffs behind five pivotal school segregation lawsuits later consolidated by the Supreme Court. Read more first-person accounts, watch oral histories, learn more about the cases and download the book at The74Million.org/Brown65

In the American judicial system, the two small words “et al.,” meaning “and others,” erase the names, faces and histories of everyday individuals seeking justice, fighting for their rights. Used as a reference in class action litigation in place of listing the names of each individual plaintiff, those four letters relegate men, women and children to what can be characterized as a “legal wasteland,” rendering them and their stories unknown.

In the instance of Brown v. Board of Education, those four letters diminished the stories of men, women and children who participated in five class-action lawsuits across the nation. Those five suits were consolidated by the United States Supreme Court in an opinion announced on May 17, 1954: Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas), Briggs v. Elliott (South Carolina), Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (Virginia), Belton (Bulah) v. Gebhart (Delaware) and Bolling v. Sharpe (Washington, D.C.).

The legal citation in the landmark ruling, one of the most famous and enduring in history, lives on as Oliver L. Brown, et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka (KS), et al.

Below are more details about these pivotal cases that were joined together at the High Court:

Bolling, et al. v. C. Melvin Sharpe, et al. (Washington, D.C.)

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, but Washington, D.C., seemed uninterested in challenging racial custom. By 1950 the traditional African-American community leadership, i.e., churches, sororities, lodges, etc., had failed to organize any protest about 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 right from social wrong.

It has been reported that on Sept. 11, 1950, Bishop led a group of 11 African-American children to the city’s new junior high school for white students. The school, named for John Philip Sousa, was a large modern building, boasting multiple basketball courts and spacious classrooms. At that moment Gardner Bishop asked for admittance for the African-American students who 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 that the African-American students continued to have an unequal educational experience.

Bishop had been organizing parents to act regarding the poor school their children were assigned to. After his field trip to Sousa High, it was time for action. He approached attorney Charles Houston on their behalf. The idea was to request that a facility, equal to that of Sousa High, be constructed for their children. Houston worked on this case independently; it was not an NAACP case.

In 1950 while preparing the Bolling case, Charles Hamilton Houston was stricken with a heart attack. As a result, he asked 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 case was named for Spottswood Thomas Bolling, one of the children who accompanied Gardner Bishop to Sousa 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.

Belton (Bulah) v. Gebhart (Delaware)

The final court challenge to segregated schools in Delaware was filed in the wake of a narrowly tailored ruling in state courts that granted relief from racially segregated public schools only for children of the plaintiffs named in the litigation, leaving the matter unresolved. Ending racial segregation in public schools statewide would require federal intervention. In order to accomplish statewide change, two cases bypassed Delaware state courts and were filed in federal court. One case was from Claymont, a suburb of Wilmington, and another from Hockessin, a rural district in New Castle County.

The state court decision focused on the only high school open to African-American students in the entire state of Delaware: Howard High School, which was located in an industrial business area in Wilmington. For African-American parents residing in Claymont, it meant that their children were forced to pass by Claymont High School, a spacious, well-maintained public school, and travel 20 miles round trip each day to Howard High School. Not only was the distance an adverse factor, but class size, incomplete curriculum and teacher qualifications (in terms of advanced degrees) 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 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 1952, Chancellor Collins J. Seitz, presiding judge of the Delaware Court of Chancery in Wilmington, directed the immediate admittance of the African-American plaintiffs’ children into segregated all-white Claymont High School. Although challenged, his decision was upheld by the Delaware Supreme Court. The Delaware decision offered that the doctrine of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional but decreed that any legal determination on the constitutionality of segregation would come on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Delaware attorney general then instructed the superintendent of Claymont schools not to admit the African-American students because two cases from the state had been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Determined to move forward, school administrators defied state officials and decided that the African-American students would be enrolled. School board members, in an act of defiance, called the state board of education and the state attorney general every hour requesting the legal mandate to allow the African-American students to remain enrolled — knowing that the mandate would have to be oral rather than written. At a special late-night board meeting, the state Board of Education finally called and gave permission (an oral mandate) to enroll the students. With that, in 1952, a small group of African-American high school students integrated public schools in Delaware prior to the Brown decision.

Although a victory for children of the named plaintiffs, Judge Seitz’s decision had not dealt the sweeping blow to segregation in public schools they had hoped for. The decision did not apply broadly throughout Delaware. His decision only directed that the 12 students who were children of the named plaintiffs would be immediately admitted to Claymont High School. As a result, the following students became known as the Claymont Twelve: Carol Anderson, Joan Anderson, Merele Anderson, Ethel Louise Belton, Bernice Byrd, Elbert Crumpler, John Davis, Spencer Robinson, Robert Sanford, Styron Sanford, Almena Short and Myrtha Trotter.

The challenge to racial segregation at the elementary school level emerged from the rural community of Hockessin, where Mrs. Sarah Bulah wanted equal opportunity for her adopted daughter, Shirley Barbara. While a bus carrying white children passed her home each day, 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 Louis Redding.

To accomplish more sweeping change, Redding set out to challenge the general notion of racially segregated public schools and developed litigation filed using the names of Sarah Bulah and one of the parents involved in the Claymont case, Ethel Belton. Their cases named 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 led as Belton v. Gebhart and Bulah v. Gebhart. The Belton and Bulah cases would ultimately join four other NAACP cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and become part of the May 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (Virginia)

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the only way an African American could receive a high school diploma in the early 20th century was by attending a private academy. Private high schools were operated by Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians in Virginia. The public schools for blacks were elementary schools (grades 1-8) 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.

In Prince Edward County, Virginia, public schooling for blacks was considered “progressive” compared to neighboring counties. Due partly to the fundraising efforts of the Farmville Colored Women’s Club, the Robert Moton School added grades 9-12 by 1947. Prior to 1947, African Americans “graduated” from high school after the 11th grade. Given that the number of school years were 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 large enough, necessitating the use of tar-paper-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.

One hundred seventeen African-American high school students chose to strike rather than attend Moton High, which was in need of physical repair. The students’ demand was simple: They wanted a new building with indoor plumbing to replace the old school. The students who provided leadership for the strike were from families who were all long-term residents of the surrounding area. Their spokesperson, Barbara Johns, had a family distinguished by activism. Barbara was the niece of Vernon Johns, the legendary minister who served in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church the 10 years prior to Martin Luther King Jr. Vernon Johns was an outspoken critic of segregation and was involved in numerous protests throughout his career. Although he lived miles away, in Montgomery, Alabama, community members reported that he was influential in giving advice to the striking students. His wife was a former teacher at 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 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 students were supported by the Rev. Francis Griffin, a local pastor and civil rights activist, who 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. He joined Moton High Principal M. Boyd Jones in petitioning the school board, asking that the obvious disparity between the county high school for African Americans and white schools be addressed. In short, they called 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 Johns 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 the 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 Johns and classmate Carrie Stokes sought legal counsel from the NAACP in Richmond. The students received a response in the form of a commitment from NAACP attorney Oliver Hill, agreeing to meet with them. The strike lasted 10 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, a suit was filed in federal court by Oliver Hill’s colleague, Spottswood Robinson, citing the students’ complaint. Surprisingly, when the case was filed, it did not carry the name of Barbara Johns as its lead plaintiff. It was by happenstance that the first student listed was a ninth-grade girl, daughter of a local farmer. Her name was Dorothy Davis. The Virginia case was filed as 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. Elliott was scheduled to be argued in another federal court.

In the case of Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, the U.S. District Court ordered that equal facilities be provided for the black students but “denied the plaintiff’s admission to the white schools during the equalization program.” Attorneys for the NAACP filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. Their case would eventually be argued with appeals from Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina and Washington, D.C., all of which became part of the court’s unanimous ruling as Brown, et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka (KS), et al.

County officials ultimately defied the Supreme Court ruling and closed public schools for five years, from 1959 until 1964. It would require another action against the county school board to reopen the schools. Rev. Griffin led the push, becoming the named plaintiff in Griffin v. County School Board. The courts directed the Board of Supervisors to immediately reopen and desegregate its public schools. Because this ruling was met with international media attention and the threat of federal enforcement, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors reopened and desegregated its public schools in 1964.

Briggs v. R. W. Elliott (South Carolina)

In 1947 a chance encounter between the Rev. James Hinton, president of the South Carolina NAACP, and the Rev. J.A. DeLaine, a local schoolteacher, led to a push to improve access to public education for African-American children living in Summerton, South Carolina. The NAACP leader, in a speech attended by Rev. DeLaine, issued a challenge to find the courage to test the legality of the discriminatory practices aimed at African-American schoolchildren.

Rev. DeLaine was teaching in St. Paul Rural Primary School while serving as the pastor of several small African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) churches. Historically, schools for African Americans in Clarendon County held classes in churches and later moved into buildings designated as schools. Consequently, many schools and churches in Summerton and throughout Clarendon County had the same names, such as Liberty Hill A.M.E. and Liberty Hill Elementary. The establishment of these schools presented a challenge for African-American parents because they were located miles from where many of the children lived.

At issue was the lack of access to school bus transportation for African-American schoolchildren in the county. While taxes paid by African-American parents helped support the buses used by white students, their children were forced to walk as far as eight miles each way in order to attend their public schools. To challenge these unequal conditions, Rev. DeLaine appealed to the school officials, but he failed to secure school buses for African-American students in the county. The Clarendon County 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 schoolchildren. Even a letter-writing campaign launched by Rev. DeLaine yielded no assistance from state educational officials. Determined to lessen their children’s long trek to school, African-American parents collected donations within their community and purchased a secondhand school bus. Eventually continual repairs on the bus proved to be too costly for the parents.

Afterward, Rev. DeLaine tried to garner support from District Superintendent L.B. McCord. It was hoped that since McCord was a fellow clergyman, he would be sympathetic. However, he refused to even consider Rev. DeLaine’s request. As the NAACP state president, Rev. DeLaine determined that litigation was the best course of action.

On March 16, 1948, local attorney Harold Boulware, along with Thurgood Marshall, filed in U.S. District Court the case of Levi Pearson v. County Board of Education. Their case was dismissed on a technicality about where Pearson paid his taxes. Since his land straddled more than one school district, the court ruled that Pearson had no legal standing because he paid taxes in District 5 while his children were in schools in Districts 22 and 26.

Unwilling to give up, Rev. DeLaine gathered enough signatures to file a second legal challenge in 1949. The national office of the NAACP agreed to represent the parents. In May 1950, with the help of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the case of Briggs v. Elliott was filed. Their legal strategy shifted from simply pursuing equalization of facilities and obtaining buses to attacking racial segregation.

The court ruled against the NAACP argument to end the practice of racial segregation in the public schools of Clarendon County. Instead, the court ordered schools to be equalized, focusing on equalization and ignoring the broader question of the constitutionality of racial segregation. The state’s action resulted in an NAACP appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Briggs case became part of the Brown v. Board of Education litigation.

The Briggs case elicited extreme reactions from whites opposed to desegregation. The petitioners, who were African-American parents of school-age children, 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 Julius Waites Waring, who sided with the parents, was forced to leave the state by a joint resolution of the South Carolina House of Representatives.

By appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Briggs case was consolidated with four cases already on the court docket, it became part of the final ruling on the matter of racially segregated public schools. On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren announced in an unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that racial segregation in the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional.

Brown, et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas)

In the fall of 1950, members of the Topeka, Kansas, chapter of the NAACP agreed to again challenge the “separate but equal” doctrine governing public education. The road to their decision came by way of 11 school desegregation cases dating from 1881 to 1949 that had been argued at the Kansas Supreme Court. Kansas law permitted but did not require racially segregated elementary schools in what they defined as “first class” cities with populations of 15,000 or more. Several of the early cases heard by the state Supreme Court successfully integrated schools in Kansas towns that did not meet the population standard of a “first class” city.

For a period of two years prior to legal action, McKinley Burnett, president of the Topeka NAACP, attempted to persuade Topeka school officials to integrate their elementary schools. The Topeka Board of Education did in fact have leeway to comply with the NAACP request to desegregate the elementary schools, since the community met the standard of being a “first class” city, thereby permitting but not requiring racially segregated elementary schools. The NAACP felt that school board refusal to end the practice of racially segregated schools necessitated litigation. Junior and senior high schools in Topeka had already integrated.

The strategy for legal action was conceived by the chapter president, Burnett, attorneys Charles Scott, John Scott, Charles Bledsoe and Elisha Scott and NAACP chapter secretary Lucinda Todd. 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 13 parents agreed to participate on behalf of their children. Each plaintiff was to watch the newspaper for enrollment dates and take their child to the elementary school for white children that was nearest to their home. Once they attempted enrollment and were denied, they were to report back to the NAACP, which provided attorneys with the documentation needed to file a lawsuit against the Topeka School Board.

African-American schools appeared equal in facilities and teacher salaries. However, with only four elementary schools for African-American children, compared with 18 for white children, attending neighborhood schools was all but impossible for African-American children. In many instances, the schools for African-American children were forced to use out-of-date textbooks and were not permitted to participate in districtwide programs. What was not in question was the dedication and qualifications of the African-American teachers and principals assigned to these schools.

The NAACP, with the assistance of the national organization’s legal team, led by attorneys Robert Carter and Jack Greenberg, filed suit against the Board of Education on Feb. 28, 1951. At that time, the name of Oliver Brown was assigned as lead plaintiff. It is suspected that this was a strategy to have a male leading the roster since he was the only man among the local plaintiffs. Their case became Oliver L. Brown, et al. vs. the Board of Education of Topeka (KS). The district court ruled in favor of the school board, forcing the NAACP to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. At the U.S. Supreme Court, the Topeka case joined four school desegregation cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C. already on the court docket. The court consolidated the five cases under the heading of Oliver L. Brown, et al. vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, et al.

On May 17, 1954, at 12:52 p.m., the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision, ruling that it was unconstitutional, violating the 14th Amendment, to separate children in public schools based on race. Brown v. Board of Education ushered in a period of unprecedented change. One year later, in December 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decree that desegregation of public schools should occur “with all deliberate speed.” This pronouncement is known as Brown II.

The process of school desegregation proved to be a challenge for school districts across the country. In 1979, a group of young attorneys concerned about a policy in Topeka Public Schools that allowed open enrollment, fearing it would lead to resegregation, filed suit against the local board of education. They believed that this choice would encourage white parents to take their children out of schools with diverse student bodies, thereby creating predominately African-American or predominately white schools. As a result, these attorneys petitioned a federal court to reopen the original Brown case to determine if Topeka Public Schools had in fact complied with the 1954 ruling.

The 1979 case is commonly known as Brown III. The attorneys involved, 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 ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) in New York, proved the premise that the local school board was presiding over “racially identifiable” schools and had failed to fully end the practice of racial segregation. In the late 1980s, Topeka Public Schools were found to be out of compliance. The Topeka Board of Education appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court declined to place the case on the docket. On Oct. 28, 1992, after several appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a final denial. Instead, the federal district court directed the Topeka Board of Education to develop plans for compliance. The approved plan entailed building three magnet schools. These schools are excellent facilities and made every effort to be racially balanced. Ironically, one of these new schools is named the Scott Computer and Mathematics Magnet School after the Scott family attorneys for their role in the Brown case and civil rights.

This article is a compilation of excerpts from Recovering Untold Stories: An Enduring Legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision, a new book spotlighting the original plaintiffs behind five pivotal school segregation lawsuits later consolidated by the Supreme Court. Read more first-person accounts, watch oral histories, learn more about the cases and download the book at The74Million.org/Brown65

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to The 74 and funded The Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research to produce the new book Recovering Untold Stories: An Enduring Legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision.

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