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60th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education

"We are all Americans and when the state sets up separate schools for certain people of a separate color, then I and others are made to feel ashamed and embarrassed"
- Ethel Louise Belton of Claymont, Delaware, plaintiff in Bulah v. Gebhart

"We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does."
- Warren, C.J. Opinion of the Court (unanimous)

Brown v. Board of Education: Eliminating Racism in Education with All Deliberate Speed

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that decided separate but equal, as previously defined in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, was a grave misnomer. As the result of the ruling, racial segregation in American schools became unconstitutional.

While Harry Truman was integrating the armed forces in the late 1940s, the National Board of the YWCA began to consider racial integration for all programs and membership. In 1949 at the national convention, the organization pledged to work toward the inclusion of minority groups in all sectors of American life. In Topeka, Kansas, home to the plaintiffs of Brown v. Board, the local YWCA placed a simple statement in the Board minutes in 1953, "that all YWCA facilities and functions would be open to all qualified members," one year before the landmark case.

Segregation by Local Option in Topeka, Kansas

The famous challenge to school segregation was, in reality, the consolidation of cases from five communities, including two from Delaware. Brown v. Board of Education was the name of the Topeka, Kansas, lawsuit in which Oliver Brown sued the Board because his daughter could not attend a school that was close to his home.

Although Kansas did not have a state law mandating segregation, "separate but equal" was allowed by local option only in the elementary schools. One of our YWCA African-American volunteers was a child in Topeka in the early 50s. She has the following recollections:

"The case ignited because Linda Brown was denied access to a white school near her home and was forced to attend the all black school which was much farther away. I remember hearing my parents talk about where I would go to school. They were trying to work out a budget to send me to a Catholic school closer to my home and parochial schools would allow blacks to attend as long as the family had the money to pay.

I ended up attending a public school from kindergarten through 6th grade in Topeka. State Street Elementary School was all white and became desegregated due to the case. In the picture, notice the placement of the black children…..sitting in the back of the classroom. Miss Hunt was my 1st grade teacher and Mr. Bartley was my principal. It goes to show that closely held attitudes will not necessarily change because of a court ruling."


A Border State with Southern Traditions

Throughout its early history, the First State permitted slavery, but in the mid-19th century Delaware refused to join the Confederacy. However, laws on segregation reflected southern tradition and therefore, in the first half of the 20th century most public facilities were segregated. In fact, school segregation was written into the state constitution. Demanding equal treatment under the law, the NAACP, in the fall of 1950, organized a group of black parents to register their children in all-white schools. All were refused.

Shirley Barbara Bulah endured a long trip to the Hockessin colored elementary school each day. Her mother asked if Shirley could ride on the school bus that transported children to the all-white school nearby. She was refused.

At the same time, Ethel Louise Belton and six other parents of African-American students became angry that their children were mandated to attend Howard High School, an all-black school which was a long bus ride from their homes in Claymont. A spacious, well –maintained, but segregated high school was located in their neighborhood.

As Delaware’s first African-American attorney, Louis Redding selected cases deemed most likely to win in court and combined them: Bulah v. Gebhart and Belton v. Gebhart. Gebhart was the name of one of the members of the Delaware State Board of Education.

In Delaware, cases involving civil rights were heard by the Chancery Court. The chief judge of the Court, Collins J. Seitz, ruled that segregation was harmful and therefore unconstitutional. The Delaware Chancellor holds the distinction of issuing the first ruling giving a clear victory to advocates for integration in an American court. However, Judge Seitz knew that because of Plessy v. Ferguson the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States were the only arbiters who could undo "separate but equal."

And, on May 17, 1954, they did. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” Earl Warren read in announcing the unanimous decision.

Smithsonian, National Museum of American History
The Leadership Conference website
EBK – Open Wide Freedom Gates: A Memo
Brown Foundation, Mission, Kansas
Delaware Public Archives
University of Delaware Special Collections: A State Divided, Delaware During the Civil War
YWCA Topeka website
USA Today
Kansas State Historical Society