Up until the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown, the courts said that racial segregation imposed by a state did not violate the equal protection

Up until the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown, the courts said that racial segregation imposed by a state did not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment as long as the segregated races enjoyed equal treatment. That interpretation, established by the Supreme Court in the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, was known as the “separate but equal” doctrine. In operation, however, segregated facilities were often not equal for blacks and whites. Consider these facts about the all-black schools in Clarendon County, South Carolina, based on testimony given in the case of Briggs v. Elliott. [Briggs was one of the five cases the Supreme Court decided in what we now call collectively the Brown decision.] In two of the schools for African-American children there was no running water. When they got thirsty, the children drank from an open bucket using a metal dipper and glass. The white schools all had running water indoors.

  • There were no lunchrooms in the schools for African-Americans. All the white schools had lunchrooms.
  • At one school for African-American students there were no desks for the students, just a long beat-up wooden table the kids had to share when writing. All the white schools had desks for each student.
  • At the schools for the African-American students, the toilet facilities were primitive. They were outdoor privies (“outhouses”) with no running water and no urinals for the boys. The white schools all had indoor restrooms with modern toilets and urinals.

In several of the cases, when African-American parents challenged the inequality of their schools by becoming plaintiffs in the lawsuits filed by the NAACP, their white employers fired them. Harry Briggs, a farmer and the father of one of the African-American students in the South Carolina case, lost his crops when the white-owned banks punished him by cutting off the credit he needed to run his farm. Another parent, Mrs. Maisie Solomon, lost her job at a white-owned motel and then was evicted from her home.


If the law required the racially separate schools to be “equal,” why do you think such obvious inequalities existed?

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