After the abolition of slavery in the United States, three Constitutional amendments were passed to grant newly freed African Americans legal status: the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the Fourteenth provided citizenship, and the Fifteenth guaranteed the right to vote. In spite of these amendments and civil rights acts to enforce the amendments, between 1873 and 1883 the Supreme Court handed down a series of decisions that virtually nullified the work of Congress during Reconstruction. Regarded by many as second-class citizens, blacks were separated from whites by law and by private action in transportation, public accommodations, recreational facilities, prisons, armed forces, and schools in both Northern and Southern states. In 1896 the Supreme Court sanctioned legal separation of the races by its ruling in H.A. Plessy v. J.H. Ferguson, which held that separate but equal facilities did not violate the U.S. Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment.
Beginning in 1909, a small group of activists organized and founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They waged a long struggle to eliminate racial discrimination and segregation from American life. By the middle of the twentieth century their focus was on legal challenges to public-school segregation. Two major victories before the Supreme Court in 1950 led the NAACP toward a direct assault on Plessy and the so-called “separate-but-equal” doctrine.
Imprisoned for Teaching Free Blacks
The prohibition of education for African Americans had deep roots in American history. According to the 1847 Virginia Criminal Code: “Any white person who shall assemble with slaves, [or] free negroes . . . for the purpose of instructing them to read or write, . . . shall be punished by confinement in the jail . . . and by fine . . .” Under this code, Margaret Douglass, of Norfolk, Virginia, a former slaveholder, was arrested, imprisoned, and fined when authorities discovered that she was teaching “free colored children” of the Christ's Church Sunday school to read and write. In her defense, Mrs. Douglass noted that she was not an abolitionist, and did not engage in undermining the institutions of the South.
Margaret Crittenden Douglass. Educational Laws of Virginia; The Personal Narrative of Mrs. Margaret Douglass, a Southern Woman, Who Was Imprisoned for One Month in the Common Jail of Norfolk, under the Laws of Virginia, for the Crime of Teaching Free Colored Children to Read. Page 2. Boston: John P. Jewett and Co., 1854. General Collections, Library of Congress (1)
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Upholding School Segregation: The Roberts Case
Five-year-old Sara Roberts was forced to walk past several white schools to reach the “colored” primary school. Her father, Benjamin Roberts, a black printer, filed a lawsuit against the city of Boston to integrate public schools. In 1849 reformer and future U.S. Senator Charles Sumner represented Roberts and challenged school segregation in the Boston court. Separate schools for African Americans, he argued, in effect branded “a whole race with the stigma of inferiority and degradation.” The Massachusetts Supreme Court, however, upheld segregation in a widely cited ruling. Influential Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw noted that Boston's separate schools possessed substantially equal facilities and declared that school integration would only increase racial prejudice.
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The Fourteenth Amendment
The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which allowed the Federal Government to protect the civil rights of individuals, including African Americans, against state encroachment, was ratified in 1868. The amendment also defined national citizenship and extended it to former slaves freed by the Civil War. This 1866 letter to Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase is from Associate Justice Stephen J. Field, whose judicial opinions would significantly influence subsequent interpretations of the amendment. Field termed the amendment, which had recently been passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification, “just what we need” and said it showed that “the American people do not intend to give up all that they have gained by the war.”
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Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896
By the time Homer A. Plessy, an octoroon (one-eighth Negro blood), who lived in New Orleans, challenged that city's right to segregate public transportation by riding in a Whites Only rail car, the constitutional amendments, passed after the Civil War and written to provide protections and rights for Negro citizens, had been eroded. The Louisiana state courts ruled against Plessy, and his subsequent appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court was denied in 1896. The impact of Plessy was to relegate blacks to second-class citizenship. They were separated from whites by law and by private action in transportation, public accommodations, recreational facilities, churches, cemeteries and school in both Northern and Southern states.
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The National Negro Committee, 1909
In 1908 socialist William English Walling published an exposé about a bloody race riot in Springfield, Illinois. As a result, in January 1909, an interracial group assembled in his apartment to discuss proposals for an organization that would advocate the civil and political rights of African Americans. The group decided to issue a “call” for a national conference on the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, February 12, 1909. As a result of the “call,” the National Negro Conference was held in New York on May 31 and June 1, 1909. At the second annual meeting, May 12, 1910, the Committee adopted the formal name of the organization—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Among the “first and immediate steps” listed at the bottom of this founding document is “That there be equal educational opportunities for all and in all the States, and that public school expenditure be the same for Negro and white child.”
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The Pink Franklin Case
The NAACP undertook its first major legal case in 1910 by defending Pink Franklin, a black South Carolina sharecropper accused of murder. When Franklin left his employer after receiving an advance on his wages, a warrant was sworn for his arrest under an invalid state law. Armed policemen arrived at Franklin's cabin before dawn to serve the warrant without stating their purpose and a gun battle ensued, killing one officer. Franklin was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. The NAACP interceded, and Franklin's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Eventually, he was set free in 1919. In this letter to Mary White Ovington, Albert Pillsbury, an attorney and NAACP supporter, recommends the appeal to South Carolina Governor Martin F. Ansel.
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Buchanan v. Warley
The NAACP sought out cases that infringed on the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in order to set legal precedents and ultimately secure the constitutional rights of African Americans. An early victory was Buchanan v. Warley, a case involving residential segregation in Louisville, Kentucky. Moorfield Storey, the NAACP's first president and a constitutional attorney, argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court in April 1917. The Court reversed the decision of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, ruling that the Louisville ordinance violated the Fourteenth Amendment. As a result of the ruling, whites resorted to private restrictive covenants, in which property owners agreed to sell or rent to whites only. The Supreme Court declared this practice unconstitutional in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948). Buchanan v. Warley was cited in the Brown decision to challenge the legality of segregated public schools.
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Separate and Unequal
The 1896 court ruling in Plessy v Ferguson ushered in an era of “separate but equal” facilities and treatment for blacks and whites. In the area of education, it was felt that the children of former slaves would be better served if they attended their own schools and in their own communities. These images of schools for black students show that facilities were separate but never equal.
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Group of African American students in Seat Pleasant, Maryland. Visual Materials from the NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (20.2) [Digital ID# cph 3e02156] Courtesy of the NAACP
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Chief Strategist Charles H. Houston
Charles Hamilton Houston was the chief strategist of the NAACP's legal campaign that culminated in the Brown decision. Born in Washington, D.C., he graduated from Amherst College, in 1915. In 1923 he became the first African American to earn a Doctor of Juridical Science degree at Harvard, where he studied under Felix Frankfurter. Houston intermittently practiced law as a partner in Houston & Houston, the prestigious firm his father founded in 1892. In 1924 he joined the faculty of Howard University Law School, and was appointed Vice Dean in 1929. By 1932 he had transformed the law school from a part-time evening school to a fully accredited institution that trained a cadre of civil rights attorneys. In 1935 the NAACP hired Houston as its first full-time salaried Special Counsel and created the Legal Department under his supervision. Although he returned to private practice in 1938, Houston continued to advise the NAACP until his death on April 22,1950.
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The NAACP Legal Team, 1933
Charles Houston was the Vice Dean of the Howard University law School before becoming NAACP special counsel in 1935. Leon Ransom was a professor at the Howard Law School. Edward Lovett and James Tyson were graduates. Lovett also worked for the firm of Houston & Houston in Washington, D.C. The entire team collaborated to plan and litigate desegregation cases. Pictured in this image are NAACP attorneys, with the exception of Walter White, who is the executive secretary of the NAACP, from 1931–1955.
Walter White, NAACP Executive Secretary, with attorneys Charles Houston, James G. Tyson, Leon A. Ransom, and Edward P. Lovett, 1933. Gelatin silver print. Visual Materials from the NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (22) Courtesy of the NAACP
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Prominent NAACP Lawyer William Hastie
William Henry Hastie (1904–1976), civil rights attorney, public official, and federal judge, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on November 17, 1904. Hastie followed in his cousin Charles Houston's footsteps by attending Amherst College and Harvard Law School, where he studied with Felix Frankfurter, receiving a Bachelor of Law in 1930 and a Doctor of Juridical Science in 1933. Between degrees, Hastie joined Houston & Houston and the faculty of Howard University Law School, becoming Dean in 1939. During the 1930's he began his tenure with the NAACP as a strategic advisor and counsel. He also served as Chairman of the Legal Committee from 1939–1949 and on the Board of Directors of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from 1941–1968. In 1949, Hastie was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In 1954 and 1967, he was considered for the Supreme Court.
William Hastie, Chairman of the National Legal Committee, NAACP, n.d. Gelatin silver print. Visual Materials from the NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (22B) Courtesy of the NAACP
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Murray v. Maryland, 1936
While practicing law in Baltimore, Thurgood Marshall worked diligently to amass black teachers' salary cases for the NAACP. He also urged Houston to take on Murray v. Maryland, a stronger prospect than the Hocutt case. The plaintiff, Donald G. Murray was a highly qualified Amherst graduate who had been denied entry to the University of Maryland Law School. In 1935 Houston consented and argued the case with Marshall in Baltimore City Court before Judge Eugene O'Dunne. The Judge ruled that Murray had been rejected solely on the basis of race and ordered the University to admit him. Murray became the first black graduate of the University's law school in 1938.
Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston with their client Donald Gaines Murray during court proceedings, ca. 1935. Gelatin silver print. Visual Materials from the NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (28) Courtesy of the NAACP
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The Garland Fund and Margold Report
In 1922 Charles Garland, a student at Harvard College, donated $800,000 to establish The American Fund for Public Service, a foundation dedicated to radical social reform. The fund, generally known as the Garland Fund, awarded a $100,000 grant to the NAACP in for the employment of a special counsel to study the legal status of African Americans and plan a legal campaign. The NAACP hired Nathan Margold, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, on the endorsement of Felix Frankfurter and Charles H. Houston. Margold focused his report on an assessment of discrimination in public schools. He advised the NAACP to“boldly challenge the constitutional validity” of underfunded black schools as a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
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Campaign Against Discrimination in Education
Nathan Margold resigned from the NAACP in 1933 to join the Interior Department as a solicitor. In 1934, the Joint Committee of the NAACP and the American Fund for Public Service retained Charles H. Houston on a part-time basis to direct a legal campaign against discrimination in education and interstate transportation. Houston reviewed the Margold Report, then composed this memorandum, in which he advocated using the scant $10,000 funds available to fight “the more acute issue of discrimination in education.” Houston diverged from Margold by delaying a direct strike on public schools, instead attacking state graduate and professional schools. His devised systematic assault would “us[e] the court as a laboratory” to develop a succession of test cases and gradually chip away at the “separate but equal” doctrine.
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Progress of the Hocutt v. Wilson case, 1933
In 1933 the NAACP undertook Hocutt v. Wilson, the first test case involving segregation in higher education. The plaintiff was Thomas R. Hocutt, a student at the North Carolina College for Negroes, who had been denied admission to the University of North Carolina's School of Pharmacy. Attorneys Conrad O. Pearson and Cecil McCoy appealed to the NAACP for assistance after filing a law suit. Charles Houston recommended William Hastie to direct the litigation. According to Pearson, “the white Bar [in attendance] was unanimous in its praise,” of Hastie's and his colleagues' trial performance, but the case was undermined by the North Carolina College President's refusal to release Hocutt's transcript.
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Integrating University of Missouri Law School
Charles Houston, NAACP Special Counsel, targeted law schools. He was optimistic that based on their own experience, white judges would reject the unequal training for black attorneys. After winning the Murray case, Houston worked with Marshall and Sidney Redmond on Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada. In 1935 the University of Missouri Law School denied entry to Lloyd Gaines, an honor graduate of Lincoln University (Mo.), offering to build a law school at Lincoln or pay Gaines's tuition at an out-of-state school. Houston and Redmond argued the case before the U.S. Supreme court in 1938. The Court ruled that Missouri must offer Gaines an equal facility within its borders or admit him to the University's law school. In response, the State legislature tried to erect a makeshift law school inciting Houston to renew litigation. Meanwhile, Gaines disappeared, abruptly ending the case. His fate remains a mystery.
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NAACP Leaders Joel and Arthur Spingarn
The favorable publicity generated by the Pink Franklin case attracted new supporters to the NAACP. Among them were Joel E. Spingarn, chairman of Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and his brother, Arthur, a lawyer, shown in this photograph. In January 1911, the NAACP organized its first branch in Harlem, New York with Joel's help. The branch established a vigilance committee, which became the National Legal Committee, to deal “with injustice in the courts as it affects the Negro.” Arthur worked pro bono because the NAACP could not afford to hire attorneys on a regular basis and was often able to convince other prominent attorneys to volunteer their services. Arthur served as the chairman of the National Legal Committee until 1939. The members of the Committee also included Felix Frankfurter and Charles Houston.
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Founding of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
In 1939 the Treasury Department refused to grant tax-exempt status to the NAACP because of a perceived conflict between the Association's litigation and lobbying activities. In response, the NAACP created its Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., as a non-profit separate arm to litigate cases and raise money exclusively for the legal program. It shared board members and office space with the NAACP. Arthur Spingarn was president of both organizations. Thurgood Marshall served concurrently as the Fund's director and NAACP Special Counsel. He hired a new team of gifted young lawyers to work for the Fund, including Robert L. Carter, Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, and Franklin Williams. The Legal Defense Fund severed ties with the NAACP in 1957 but retained its original name.
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George W. McLaurin Segregated to the Anteroom
George W. McLaurin, a veteran school teacher living in Oklahoma applied to the all-white University of Oklahoma to pursue an advance degree in education in 1948. His application was rejected because Oklahoma statutes made it illegal for blacks and whites to attend the same school. McLaurin filed a complaint against the University on the state court level and won. He was allowed to attend classes but not with his fellow students. This photograph shows how he was segregated to the anteroom of a classroom in 1948 after his admission. In 1950, McLaurin filed suit with the and U.S. Supreme Court and won. The case paved the way for the Brown v. Board of Education cases.
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Press Conference for the Sweatt Case
Thurgood Marshall hired Robert L. Carter as a legal assistant at the Legal Defense Fund in 1944 and promoted him to assistant counsel in 1945. Carter graduated from Lincoln University (Pa.), Howard Law School, and earned a Master of Laws from Columbia University. He helped to prepare briefs in the McLaurin and Sweatt cases, and argued McLaurin in Oklahoma and before the Supreme Court. Carter later became Marshall's key aide on the Brown litigation. He recommended the social science strategy that became a crucial factor in the Brown decision. He also wrote the brief for the Brown case and delivered the argument before the Supreme Court. He served as the NAACP's General Counsel from 1956 to 1968. In 1972 President Nixon appointed Carter to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, where he still presides as a judge.
Robert Carter (right), Heman Sweatt (center), and NAACP Administrator Roy Wilkins (left) during a press conference interview at the NAACP's New York City headquarters, ca. 1950. Gelatin silver print. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (43)
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The Henderson, McLaurin and Sweatt Cases
The Legal Defense Fund waited twelve years to pursue two precedent-setting cases before the Supreme Court. In 1946 the University of Texas Law School denied entry to Heman Sweatt and proposed a makeshift law school for him in the basement of a building near all-black Prairie View University. In 1948 George McLaurin, a teacher, applied to the University of Oklahoma to pursue his doctorate. The University admitted McLaurin but segregated him from white students. The Court also considered another case, Henderson v. United States, which involved segregated dining cars on interstate trains. On June 5, the Court ruled in favor of all three plaintiffs. In Sweatt and McLaurin, the Court held that intangible factors could create educational inequality. These factors included the Texas Law School's superior reputation, faculty, and alumni network. The Court's decisions in these cases weakened the structure of legalized segregation.
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Twentieth Annual Session of the NAACP
In 1929, the annual conference of the NAACP convened in Cleveland to mark the Association's twentieth anniversary. The NAACP had much to celebrate. It had launched a successful anti-lynching crusade; won important legal battles; and organized 325 branches. The Crisis, the Association's official organ, was the leading black periodical with a circulation of more than 100,000. Among the NAACP officials seated in the front row (left to right) are W.E.B. Du Bois, editor of The Crisis; James Weldon Johnson, NAACP Executive Secretary, 1920–1930; Robert Bagnall, Director of Branches; Daisy Lampkin, Regional Field Secretary; Walter White, Assistant Secretary, 1918–1929; William Pickens, Field Secretary; and Arthur Spingarn, Chairman of the Legal Committee.
Cole, photographer. Twentieth Annual Session of the NAACP in Cleveland, Ohio, June 26, 1929. Gelatin silver print. Visual Materials from the NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (19) Courtesy of the NAACP
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An African American School House
This photograph shows the condition of many African American schools in the first decades of the twentieth century. Many states simply did not allocate enough funds to provide “equal” schools in the separate black schools. In South Carolina, the resulting inadequate condition for black children led to the Briggs v. Elliot case in 1954. The Briggs case would become one of the five included in the Brown decision.
Marion Post Wolcott, photographer. African American School House near Summerville, South Carolina, 1938. Gelatin silver print. FSA-OWI Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (26) [digital ID# br0026a]
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