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Important Milestones in African American Education

The Plessy Decision

Homer Plessy looked like an average white man, but he was part of a conspiracy to challenge Jim Crow laws that relegated black people to second-class citizen status. Once he was seated with his first-class train ticket that day in June of 1892, he told the conductor that he was one-eighth black!

It worked! The US Supreme Court heard the case in 1896, but it upheld that the Louisiana law segregating black people from white people was Constitutional provided there were "separate but equal" accommodations.

It was a devastating blow to African-American freedom and education; one from which there would be several milestones reached by many, many stepping stones.

Brown vs. Board of Education

In 1951, Oliver Brown and twelve other black parents tried to enroll their children in schools in their Topeka, Kansas neighborhoods, but were sent away with directions to enroll their children in the segregated schools established for black children. This, too, was a bit of a conspiracy, but Mr. Brown’s sincere concern for his daughter’s educational opportunities was the spark.

The thirteen parents filed a class-action suit, but the Kansas District Court ruled against the parents citing the Plessy decision as precedent for the case.

In 1954, the case would be combined with several other cases, including one from Delaware appealed by the government because the judge ordered that a black student be allowed to enroll in a white school, for the biggest milestone in African-American education! With future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall providing the argument in Brown vs. Board of Education, the Plessy standard of "separate but equal" was abolished!

Raising the Stakes in Little Rock

Though the standard was knocked down, segregation continued in many places. One of those places was Little Rock, Arkansas.

In 1957, nine black students enrolled at Central High School in the capital city. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to surround the school to prevent the nine students from entering. President Eisenhower responded by ordering the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock to make sure the nine students entered the school safely.

This show of force by the federal government to uphold the standards was the first of its kind, but not the last.

In 1962, two people would die at Ole Miss in a confrontation over its first black student, and in 1963 Alabama Governor George Wallace made a symbolic stand at the University of Alabama before allowing black students to enroll in public schools in that state.

The End of Virtual Segregation

Despite these efforts forcing integration of black students in public schools, there was still virtual segregation resulting from predominantly white and predominantly black neighborhoods.

School boards would draw school districts based on these demographics. The Supreme Court would make a couple more decisions in the 1960s that integration was required. However, even those decisions left loopholes that allowed for integration, but not desegregation.

In 1971, the Supreme Court would rule in Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that schools were to be racially balanced through forced busing if necessary. This decision effectively ended the era of "separate but equal" schools, which were separate, but were in no way equal.

Summing it up

Homer Plessy died in 1925. He looked like an average white man, but he was one-eighth black. His landmark case would fail to overturn Jim Crow laws, and would set a standard for which there would be more sacrifice by more people on more issues for many more years to come before being overturned.

Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, President Eisenhower sending Army troops into Little Rock in 1957, and Swann vs. Charlotte-Meckenburg Board of Education in 1971 would be the three most important milestones in overcoming the "separate but equal" standard in African-American education.

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