Brown v. Board of Education

Photo Essay

Anacostia High School, Washington D.C., 1957, Courtesy of Library of Congress

After the promise of Reconstruction faded into the discrimination of the Jim Crow era, African Americans at the turn of the century found themselves living in a country where they were acknowledged as citizens but permanently isolated into a disadvantaged underclass. The 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed separate railroad cars for blacks and whites in Louisiana provided that the facilities were "separate but equal," opened the door to legalized segregation in virtually all public places, most importantly in schools. However, African Americans' continual efforts to work against Jim Crow through litigation and associations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) eventually bore fruit in a series of cases that chipped away at the legality of segregation. Sweatt v. Painter (1950), which outlawed segregation in graduate education, and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950), which forced the state-sponsored University of Oklahoma to admit an African American student on an equal standing with his peers, both paved the way for a decision that would outlaw school segregation at all levels. This came in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, in which the court ruled that "separate education facilities are inherently unequal" and were in fact detrimental to the mental and emotional well-being of black children. This watershed decision heralded the end of segregation and became the foundation of the successful civil rights movement of the 1960s, but it did not magically solve the problems of racial equality in America. Black students attending newly integrated schools in the years after Brown faced discrimination, threats, and violence, while the reluctance of a number of schools to comply with the Court's ruling eventually forced a confrontation between southern states and the federal government. Moreover, although legalized segregation is now a thing of the past, in many communities today demographic shifts and economic inequalities have ensured that the color line remains all too real.

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