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Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

Monroe School, 1920sOn May 17, 1954, by unanimous vote, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that "separate but equal" education facilities are "inherently unequal," and that segregation in the schools is, therefore, unconstitutional. The landmark case, known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, involved a Kansas statute permitting racial segregation in some of the state's elementary schools.

In many states African American students were placed in schools that were inferior to those attended by white children. The plaintiffs in Topeka did not charge that the schools' facilities their children attended were inferior, but that segregation itself did psychological and educational damage to black children forced to attend schools isolated from the other children in the community. 

They began to develop their challenge in 1950 with Topeka attorneys Charles Scott, John Scott, and Charles Bledsoe. A petition to the school board was drafted and a number of African American citizens began the difficult but successful effort to collect necessary signatures. They were assisted in this effort by volunteers from the Menninger Foundation. When the Board of Education failed to terminate segregation as requested, black Topekans, joined by the NAACP, and several other cases: Briggs v. Elliott from South Carolina; Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia; Bolling v. Sharpe from the District of Columbia; and Gebhart v. Belton from Delaware, to take their fight to the U.S. Supreme Court. At the time of the Brown oral argument, 17 states in the Union provided for separate schools for white and black children. Four others permitted school boards to segregate. Those four were Wyoming, Kansas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

The Brown case was the first case to be argued to the court. Robert Carter, representing the Brown family and the other plaintiffs, began his argument on December 9, 1952.

Listen to this interview with Judge Robert Lee Carter in 1992.

The state of Kansas was represented by 36-year-old Assistant Attorney General Paul Wilson. By the fall of 1952, the school board of Topeka had been transformed by elections to a group whose majority did not want segregation and did not want to defend it. Kansas Attorney General Harold Fatzer, who would later become chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, was not enthusiastic about the state's side of the case. However, he could not concede that Kansas' law was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court essentially ordered the attorney general's office to file a brief and present oral arguments. Wilson, who would later become a much beloved law professor at the University of Kansas, wrote extensively about his experience in Brown. He had a feeling that he would lose the case because, as he said later, "history and social conscience had simply overtaken the law."

Following the 1952 oral argument, the Supreme Court justices remained deeply divided over the question of whether to uphold racial segregation in education. At the conclusion of the Court's session, the justices delayed their decision by asking the parties to present additional arguments. Five questions were issued to the parties, focusing on the original understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment and on judicial power to abolish segregation even if such abolition had not been contemplated by the writers of the Amendment and those who ratified it. The Court scheduled reargument on October 12, 1953. But those plans changed on September 9, 1953, when Chief Justice Fred Vinson died of a heart attack at the age of 63.

Less than one month after Chief Justice Vinson's death, Earl Warren took the oath of office to become the new Chief Justice of the United States. New arguments in Brown were rescheduled to begin on December 7, 1953.

During those arguments, the parties focused on whether, at the time the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, Congress and others understood the Amendment would outlaw segregation in public schools. The parties also addressed whether future members of Congresses or the court had the power to interpret the Amendment to abolish segregation, it there was no such understanding at the time the Amendment was adopted.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that segregated public education violated the Fourteenth Amendment, a conclusion that rested not necessarily on the understanding or conditions existing when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted, but on the later full development of public education and its current status in American life throughout the nation.

Because its decision applied to all public schools in a variety of local conditions, the Supreme Court was concerned about how to design a remedy. It directed the parties to submit additional briefs and return for another argument in 1955, this time concerning the relief that should be ordered. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that school boards must make a "prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance" and that the courts would monitor school boards to make sure they were putting compliance plans in place and following them.

In 1999, the U.S. District Court finally closed the Brown case in Topeka, after monitoring compliance for 40 years. Today some U.S. school districts are still under monitoring and supervision of federal courts.

The Brown decision altered the daily lives of black and white Americans. It laid a foundation of equal rights and opportunities for all. It demonstrated that educational opportunity and achievement are core values and recognized that education can be a great equalizer among people of different races, classes, and backgrounds. It shines as a beacon to all Americans and to the rest of the world, demonstrating that the ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the tenets of the United States Constitution will be universally applied to all citizens.

The landmark case Brown v. Board of Education was the result of the hard work of many people, including the following Topeka plaintiffs, who began their challenge in the U.S. District Court in 1951:

Oliver Leon Brown
Darlene Brown
Lena M. Carper
Sadie Emmanuel
Marguerite Emerson
Shirla Fleming
Mrs. Andrew (Zelma) Henderson
Shirley Hodison
Mrs. Richard (Maude) Lawton
Alma Lewis
Iona Richardson
Vivian Scales
Lucinda Todd
View selected primary sources related to Brown v. Board of Education on Kansas Memory.
The Kansas Historical Society partnered with the Brown Foundation to conduct oral history interviews related to the landmark civil rights Supreme Court case.  A few of the interview transcripts are available on Kansas Memory but many more are not yet online.  Check out the finding aid for a listing of all of the interviews.

Entry: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2003

Date Modified: January 2019

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.