Monday, August 27, 2007

Historical Perspective

The 1923 class photo to the left is an image of Sycamore School, a "Mexican" school in Orange County, California. Mexican American students attended a segregated school which was nicknamed the "Barn." In accordance with the Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, segregated schools were commonplace in the early to mid 1900s.
Throughout American history issues of racial equality and educational opportunity have been disputed. Interestingly, the 1947 Mendez v. Westminster School District nor the infamous 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education were the first cases for desegregation of public schools. The following bullet points highlight several desegregation court cases both before and after Mendez and Brown:
  • Roberts v. Boston--Massachusetts State Supreme Court case, 1850
Five-year-old, African American, Sarah Roberts, had to walk past five "Anglo" schools to get to the "colored" school. Attempting to enroll in an Anglo school, she was refused entry into an elementary school that was much closer to her home in Massachusetts. With support from the African American community, Sarah's father filed a lawsuit against the city to end segregation in public schools. However, the ruling in the Massachusetts State Supreme Court took the side of the school district and allowed it to segregate in schools as it saw fit.
  • Plessy v. Ferguson--U. S. Supreme Court case, 1896
Homer Plessy, a biracial man, attempted to sit in the white section of a railroad car in Louisiana. When Plessy refused to move out of the white section, he was forcibly removed and jailed. According to the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act, Plessy would have been required to sit in a separate railroad car for "colored" passengers regardless if he was biracial. Plessy claimed that the Louisiana Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and filed a lawsuit. The Louisiana courts, however, favored the Louisiana Separate Car Act as they claimed it was not in conflict with the Amendments.

In 1896,
Plessy took his case to the U. S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court concurred with the Louisiana courts and ruled against Plessy. It claimed that the Louisiana Separate Act did not violate Plessy's rights as long as the separate cars were equal to one another. The decision approved de jure segregation of races in transportation, public facilities, accommodations, schools, theaters, and restaurants.
  • Gong Lum v. Rice--U. S. Supreme Court case, 1927
Nine-year-old, Martha Lum, a Chinese American, enrolled in a public school in Mississippi. Shortly after enrolling, the Superintendent of the school district told Martha that she could not attend the school as she was not Anglo nor could she return the following day. Shortly after, her father, Gong Lum, filed a lawsuit against the school board, claiming that Martha was not colored, was Chinese American, and that she should be able to attend the Anglo school. Her father, took the case to the Mississippi State Supreme Court. The ruling favored the school board, however. Undaunted, the Lums, took their case to the U. S. Supreme Court. Yet Chief Justice William Howard Taft supported the decision of the Mississippi State Supreme Court. He ruled that Martha could not be classified as white, and she could only attend a "colored" public school.

  • Roberto Alvarez v. The Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District--San Diego Superior Court case, 1931
Seventy-five first generation Mexican American students attended Lemon Grove Grammar School in 1930. In that year, the Anglo school board of Lemon Grove School District met on several occasions to discuss the need for a separate school for Mexican American children. Yet the Mexican parents were not invited nor notified of these meetings.

At the beginning of the school day on January 5, 1931, Principal Jerome T. Green welcomed all children into the school except the Mexican American children. Directed by the school trustees, Principal Green told the Mexican American children that they could no longer attend Lemon Grove Grammar School. Instead they had to attend a separate school. The separate "Mexican" school was a two room building which was nicknamed, "La Caballeriza" or the barnyard. Instead of going to the "Mexican" school the children returned to their homes.

The Mexican parents refused to allow their children to attend the "Mexican" school. The parents petitioned the courts to reinstate their children into Lemon Grove Grammar School as they found the exclusion of their children had been an attempt at racial segregation. The San Diego Supreme Court Judge Claude Chambers found for the plaintiffs. Judge Chambers stated that the Lemon Grove School Board members had illegally condoned racial segregation and all Mexican American students were ordered back to Lemon Grove Grammar School. In addition, Judge Chambers declared that segregation in the school district had no legal basis. Listen to an NPR audio clip at

  • Brown v. Board of Education--U. S. Supreme Court case, 1954
Seven-year-old Linda Brown had to walk one mile and across a railroad switchyard to get to her "colored" elementary school in Topeka, Kansas. Yet an all-white school was only a few blocks from her home. Her father, Oliver Brown, attempted to enroll his daughter into the white school near their home, but the school principal refused for Linda to be enrolled because she was black.

The Brown
family, along with support from the black community and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a lawsuit against The Board of Education. One of the lead lawyers for the case was NAACP's, Thurgood Marshall. Marshall gained experience in the desegregation case Mendez v. Westminster seven years prior.

The Brown case would
eventually make its way to the U. S. Supreme Court. Marshall pushed for the court to overturn the precedent that was established in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), allowing for "separate but equal" public facilities. In 1954, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren found for the plaintiffs and in a monumental decision overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. Chief Justice Warren claimed that "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," and the ruling had violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

The decision paved the way for integration. However, the Supreme Court failed to mandate a timeline and instead claimed that public school desegregation was to be implemented with "all deliberate speed." Countless states refused to follow the Court and declared the decision void or simply had schools close their doors rather than implement integration. The ruling would later help light the fire of the Civil Rights Movement and black pride.

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