Equalization and its Role in Dismantling Racial Segregation in Virginia Public Schools

Today’s post was written by Grace Schultz, archivist at the National Archives at Philadelphia. A companion lesson plan can be viewed here on DocsTeach.

The fight to desegregate schools started long before the Supreme Court’s decision in Oliver Brown, et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al., and it continues today. As can be seen in case files held at the National Archives at Philadelphia, lawyers from the Virginia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) brought cases to U.S. District Courts across Virginia to attempt to equalize educational opportunities for Black and white students as early as the 1930s. These cases contributed to a larger national campaign which aimed to erode white support for segregated schools by demonstrating the financial cost of funding separate but equal schools for both Black and white students.[1] The NAACP’s equalization strategy, and the cases litigated by the NAACP in the U.S. District Courts in Virginia, was an instrumental step in the fight to desegregate schools across America. Three cases that were litigated in Virginia in 1948 show the significance of the equalization strategy, its shortcomings, and the ways in which it contributed to the desegregation of schools across the United States in the 1950s-1960s, a fight which continues today.

Virginia’s public school system was racially segregated from its inception in 1870. While most states, including Virginia, had codified racial segregation in their state constitutions, segregation was further legitimized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 when the justices issued a 7-1 decision against Homer Plessy in the landmark case Homer A. Plessy v. John H. Ferguson. In their ruling, the Supreme Court established the “separate but equal” principle which stated that racial segregation did not necessarily violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, so long as equal accommodations were provided for both Black and white people. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Virginia NAACP brought cases to U.S. District Courts identifying unequal treatment of Black and white students in Virginia public schools. These cases did not challenge the “separate but equal” clause of the Plessy decision directly, but instead focused on equalizing Black and white schools to show school districts that they would be crushed under the financial weight of truly separate but equal accommodations. In 1948 , the lawyers from the Virginia NAACP brought three separate cases to U.S. District Courts in the Eastern District of Virginia: Arthur M. Freeman, et al. v. County School Board of Chesterfield County et al.; Margaret Smith v. School Board of King George County, Virginia, and T. Benton Gayle, Division Superintendent; and Alice Lorraine Ashley v. School Board of Gloucester County, Virginia, and J. Walter Kenny, Division Superintendent. While the details of all three cases are different, they were ruled on together because the plaintiffs claimed their school districts discriminated against them based on their race, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Teacher Arthur M. Freeman sued the County School Board of Chesterfield County, with the help of the Virginia NAACP, because of the pay disparity between Black and white teachers in Chesterfield County, Virginia. In the 1946-1947 school year, 91 percent of white teachers received salaries equal to or higher than the maximum paid Black teacher. This pay disparity occurred during a time when 52 percent of Black teachers held degrees, while just 29 percent of white teachers held degrees. The judge declared that discrimination between salaries paid to white and Black teachers in Chesterfield county existed, and it was based solely on race. The judge ordered the school district to equalize the salaries of white and Black teachers, but left how to determine pay equality to the school district.

Cases Margaret Smith v. School Board of King George County and Alice Lorraine Ashley v. School Board of Gloucester County were both filed because of discrimination in the school buildings, facilities, and equipment furnished to white children as compared with those furnished to Black children. In both cases, NAACP lawyers submitted compelling photographic evidence of the conditions of both schools, as well as economic data about how much money the school district spent on Black and white students and the monetary values of each building. In both Gloucester and King George counties, the accommodations and opportunities afforded to Black and white students were substantially unequal.

In the case of Alice Lorraine Ashley v. School Board of Gloucester County, the inequity in the photographic exhibits is striking. Botetourt High School, a white high school in Gloucester County, had central heating, central plumbing, and smaller classroom sizes. Gloucester Training School, which was the principal school operated for Black children in Gloucester County, had outdoor bathrooms for students, no central heat, and overcrowded classrooms. The school district spent significantly more money in the white school than they did in the Black school: specifically, the average annual cost per student attending Botetourt High School was $81.63, while the average annual cost per student attending Gloucester Training High School was $51.49. One of the starkest comparisons in the photographic evidence submitted in the case was the restrooms provided for the white students as compared with the outhouse provided to the Black students. The Botetourt High School girl’s bathroom had at least five private indoor stalls, a small vanity mirror, and running water, a photograph of which can be seen here. In contrast, the Gloucester County Training School’s boy’s bathroom was a single stall bathroom, located outside, with no running water, which can be seen here. As can be seen in these photographs, and others from the case file, Black and white students in Gloucester County, Virginia were not provided with separate but equal educational facilities or opportunities.[2]

Judge Charles Sterling Hutcheson, U.S. District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, agreed that in all three cases the school districts were discriminating against Black students and teachers and that school officials needed to equalize the schools. Though, the judge emphasized that the court would not be enforcing the ruling, stating:

“I desire to make it clear that the Court is not undertaking to supervise or direct the proper authorities with respect to what steps must be taken to eliminate the discriminations. The scope of this opinion is limited by the authority of the Court to find from the evidence and legal principles applicable whether unlawful discrimination exists and whether the plaintiffs are entitled to injunctions against its continuance.”[3]

Judge Hutcheson went on to state that,

“I am aware of the familiar contention that the financial difficulties facing the counties in their efforts to equalize facilities and opportunities for the races are so great as to raise a doubt as to their ability to do so; and that the greater portion of the tax burden falls on the white population.”[4]

Judge Hutcheson’s ruling demonstrated the shortcomings of the NAACP’s equalization strategy: he recognized that the school districts were discriminating against Black students and teachers but offered no solution or path forward to equity. He articulated the NAACP’s thesis that fulfilling the “separate but equal” doctrine would make it too costly for school districts to maintain separate and equal facilities, but the toothless ruling left it up to the school district to decide how to equalize. While these cases did not end segregation in Virginia schools, they allowed NAACP lawyers to gain more experience litigating cases, and also marked a turning point in the NAACPs legal strategy to end segregation in public schools.

After 1950, the NAACP abandoned the equalization strategy and exclusively filed lawsuits that directly challenged the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” doctrine.[5] One such case was Dorothy E. Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, et al. (see digitized records here) which was one of the five cases combined into Brown v. Board of Education that ruled segregation in schools unconstitutional. Even after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on May 17, 1954, where the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” and the follow up decree from Brown II in 1955 that stated that the dismantling of racially segregated school systems should proceed with “all deliberate speed,” white Virginians resisted. Virginia politicians immediately began undermining attempts at integration through a massive resistance campaign to maintain segregated schools. Certain school districts chose to shut schools down rather than integrate them, and notably, the public schools in Prince Edward County remained closed from 1959 to 1964.

In addition to closing schools, some Virginia school districts also attempted to implement “freedom of choice” plans, which claimed to allow students to attend the school of their choice. However, in practice, these plans did very little to desegregate Virginia schools. In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Charles C. Green, et al. v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia, et al. (see digitized records here) that Virginia school districts needed to enact a plan that actively worked to desegregate school systems. And so, 14 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Virginia began its effort in earnest to desegregate public schools. Due to racial segregation in residential neighborhoods, Virginia began busing students to desegregate schools in 1970. Public schools across the country continued to integrate, many of which did so under Court oversight, and desegregation in public schools peaked in 1988. After this, schools across the country began to re-segregate due to a variety of factors including socioeconomic conditions, loss of development in certain areas, and white flight.

While segregation on the basis of race is illegal, many schools in the United States are as segregated today as they were in 1968. According to a nationwide study by Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis released in 2014, courts overseeing desegregation in public schools released 45 percent of school districts under court oversight between 1990 and 2009.[6] As schools were released from court oversight, levels of segregation in public schools began to rise. According to a report released in February 2019 by the nonprofit EdBuild, “more than half of the nation’s schoolchildren are in racially concentrated districts, where over 75 percent of students are either white or nonwhite.”[7] Further, white school districts receive $23 billion more in funding than nonwhite school districts, despite serving the same number of students.[8] Race and poverty are inextricably linked, and on average, nonwhite districts received about $2,200 less per student than districts that were predominantly white, according to the report.[9] Looking at archival photographs from over eighty years ago can give the impression that racial segregation in public schools is an historical phenomenon, however economic data on the current state of public education in America shows that our schools continue to remain separate and unequal.

[1] Brian James Daugherity, “Keep on keeping on: The NAACP and the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education in Virginia” (PhD diss, College of William and Mary, 2010), 10.

[2] The entrance to Botetourt High School was photographed showing two indoor water fountains (Image: https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/botetourt-high-school-fountains), while the water fountain at the Gloucester Training High School students only had access to one outdoor water fountain (Image: https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/fountain-gloucester-training-school). A Botetourt High School classroom was photographed with eleven students to a teacher in this photograph of a classroom (Image:https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/botetourt-high-school-classroom), all of whom had their own typewriters and desks, while there are twenty-five students in the photograph of the Gloucester Training High School classroom, and there are likely more out of the shot (Image: https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/gloucester-training-school-classroom).

[3] April 7, 1948 Decision of Judge Sterling Hutcheson, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, in Arthur M. Freeman et al. v. County School Board of Chesterfield County et al. (Richmond, Civil Action No. 644).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Brian James Daugherity, “Keep on keeping on: The NAACP and the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education in Virginia” (PhD diss, College of William and Mary, 2010), 24.

[6] Gary Orfield and Erica Frankenberg with Jongyeon Ee and John Kuscera, “Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future,” The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles (May 2014).

[7] “$23 Billion,” EdBuild, (February 2019), edbuild.org/content/23-billion.

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid.