Segregation Then and Now

*This is the first in a series of blogs about segregation in public schools. A more apt title for this series might be The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The seeds of segregation were planted in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896 when the  Supreme Court upheld state racial segregation laws for public facilities under the credo of “separate but equal”.  This applied to public facilities, transportation, and schools, and remained uncontested until the 1950s when black families who were frustrated with the quality of the schools their children were attending decided to do something about it.

Black parents in New Orleans had grown increasingly unhappy with the poor educational support given to their children, who constituted nearly 60% of the city’s student population. Oliver Bush lived in New Orleans with his eight children. He was an insurance salesman with the all-black Louisiana Industrial Life Insurance Company and president of the Maccarty Parent Teacher Association. In 1952 Bush encouraged thirty five African American students and their parents to file a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Louisiana seeking desegregation of the New Orleans Public Schools. Mr. Bush agreed to allow his son Earl be the lead plaintiff (Middleton, 2011). This became known as Bush v. Orleans Parish School Board. Bush was supported by the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the NAACP.  (Middleton, 2011).
“The lawsuit challenged segregation itself, claiming that Louisiana’s state statutes and constitutional provisions mandating school segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.” (p. 329). Equal protection requires states to guarantee the same rights, privileges, and protections to all citizens.
The Bush case didn’t make it off the ground as it was withdrawn at the suggestion of Thurgood Marshall, who was serving as the lead counsel with the Legal Defense and Educational Fund.  Marshall  wanted to wait for the Supreme Court ruling on the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case.

In the Brown case,  plaintiffs argued separate was not, in fact, equal. Schools did not provide the same facilities, trained teachers, or curriculum. Marshall once said, “Equal means getting the same thing at the same time and in the same place” (as cited in Byrne, 2005, p. 211).

The Brown case was actually five cases grouped together to go before the Supreme Court, arguing that separate was not equal.  Oliver Brown of Topeka, Kansas was an African American man whose daughter Linda faced a long commute to school every day. Brown was a welder and World War II veteran who served as an assistant pastor at his local church. When the Supreme Court consolidated the cases in 1952, Brown’s name appeared in the title, some say because it came first alphabetically.

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On May 17, 1954 in the landmark Brown v. Board decision, the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled segregation of public schools was unconstitutional (source).

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“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” (source).

Marshall predicted the end of segregation would come by the fall of 1955. He wasn’t even close.  Some districts in the South voted to close schools rather than desegregate. In other districts segregationist academies opened. These academies were private schools established for white families who wished to avoid having their children enrolled in desegregated schools.  In Louisiana, voters approved an amendment requiring segregation in order to “promote and protect public health, morals, better education and the peace and good order in the State, and not because of race” (Middleton, 2011, p. 330).

As a result of the lack of compliance, the  Supreme Court was forced to consider the stalled desegregation of schools. In what became known as Brown II, the court addressed the concern of when schools had to desegregate. The decision came on May 31, 1955.

“Chief Justice at the time, the Honorable Earl Warren put a lot of pressure on local school districts and the courts which originally heard segregation cases to change and align their communities to fulfill their decision in favor of Brown. According to the Supreme Court’s revisit to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, district courts and school administrators were to implement the doctrine the Supreme Court had decided upon in its first Brown decision. Chief Justice Warren urged certain localities to act on the new principles without delay and to move toward complete compliance with them “with all deliberate speed” (source).

Still with no desegregation in New Orleans resulting from the Brown II decision, Oliver Bush approached the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) asking them to comply with Brown, but got nothing. So Mr. Bush reopened his lawsuit. In February 1956, the case went before the Eastern District, this time the court agreed with the plaintiff in that the OPSB was violating the Constitution. Judge J. Skelly Wright ordered the OPSB to desegregate but imposed no date by which the law would be enforced (source).

In 1959, now three years after this decision, with no movement towards desegregation, Judge Wright ordered the OPSB to present a plan to desegregate within one year or by May 16, 1960 (Middleton, 2011, p . 330). Still the OPSB did not comply and Judge Wright finally imposed his own plan allowing all first graders to choose to attend their home school which would go into effect in September of 1960.


Six years after the Supreme Court ruled on Brown, public schools in the US, especially in the South, continued to resist the ruling to desegregate. Most people assume the Brown decision was an open and shut case and segregation was history. If it were only that easy.

These are my reflections for today.

April 1, 2017

References:                                                                                                                                                     Byrne, D. Ed. (2005). Brown v. Board of Education: Its impact on public education 1954-2004.  New York: Word for Word Publishing co., Inc.

Middleton, T. (2011). Norman Rockwell’s The problem we all live with: Teaching Bush v. Orleans Parish School Board. Social Education (75)6. 329-333.


Author: Meg White

I am a lifelong educator and I hope to use this blog to reflect on what's happening in public education. These are my musings, opinions, and reflections. If you learn from them, good for us. Ignorance is no excuse. I have co-authored a book, "Questioning Assumptions and Challenging Perceptions: Becoming an Effective Teacher in Urban Environments" (available on amazon)

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