One of the most significant landmark cases in the history of the United States, the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education compiled cases from five communities across the South, East, and Midwest to desegregate American schools. Though Brown v. Board is most often associated with Kansas, this collection of historic schools from communities in Delaware, Washington, D.C., Virginia, and South Carolina tell a more complete story of Brown v. Board and the ongoing struggle for educational equity.
In partnership with the offices of House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund is working with local partners to join the stories of these places with those already being told at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas, creating opportunities for public education and interpretation while allowing buildings to maintain their current uses as schools, community centers, and offices. This work is an opportunity to give voice to the stories of dozens of parents, students, attorneys, and activists who not only struggled to secure the Brown v. Board decision, but also often weathered the continued fight to integrate in its aftermath.
Many Places, One Goal
The communities represented in the Brown v. Board cases were deliberately chosen to represent the geographic spread and variety of experiences of school segregation. Their experiences are captured by the era’s remaining buildings, each of which has a unique place in the fight to achieve the common goal of integration.
Wilmington, Claymont, and Hockessin, Delaware
Black students in suburban Claymont had to travel long distances by bus into downtown Wilmington to attend Howard High School, the only high school in the state of Delaware open to Black students. Although Howard provided an excellent education in a stately, two-story brick building, the commute was exhausting. Meanwhile, students at Hockessin Colored School #107 couldn’t ride the whites-only bus that passed the school every day, and instead had to find their own transportation.
The case brought by Sarah Beulah about transportation to Hockessin Colored School #107, along with parents who sued to gain admittance to the all-white Claymont High School, became the basis for Belton (Beulah) v. Gebhart. In 1952, it became the only case connected to Brown v. Board at the state level to be decided in favor of the plaintiffs. By the time of the Supreme Court decision two years later, Claymont High School was already integrated.
Today, Howard High School has become the Howard High School of Technology, while Claymont High School is the Claymont Community Center. Hockessin Colored School #107 is poised to become a training center focused on inclusion and equity.
In Washington, Black students living in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River were barred from attending the new John Phillip Sousa Junior High School, instead traveling to various older Black schools much further away. After a group of parents calling themselves the Consolidated Parents Group unsuccessfully petitioned to have their children admitted to Sousa, attorney James Nabrit, Jr. filed Bolling v. Sharpe. Because of its Washington, D.C. origins, the decision in this case held the federal government to the same standards of nondiscrimination as the states. The Modernist brick building continues to be used as Sousa Middle School.
In Farmville in 1951, 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns led a student walkout at Russa Moton High School to protest the Black school’s classroom conditions, where overcrowding was forcing some students to attend class in tar paper shacks. The bravery of Johns and her fellow students led the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to file Davis v. Prince Edward County, one of the key cases that became a part of the broader Brown v. Board Supreme Court case.
Following the 1954 Supreme Court victory, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors closed their schools for five years rather than integrate, denying an education to a generation of students. The one-story brick building now houses the Robert Russa Moton Museum, which tells the story of the student walkout, the legal battle, and the school closures that followed.
Summerton, South Carolina
White students at Summerton High School had far superior facilities to their Black counterparts (who were also denied access to school buses) at nearby Scott’s Branch High School. Reverend J.A. DeLaine recruited parents to serve as plaintiffs in a case brought in the fall of 1950 that sought the integration of schools. A panel of three judges denied the parents’ request and instead ordered that separate schools be equalized, leading to the demolition of the old Scott’s Branch School and its replacement with a new, brick “equalization school.” Today, Summerton High School serves as school district offices, while the Scott’s Branch equalization school is a community resource center.
Combining Old Uses with New Approaches
While many of these buildings are recognized as National Historic Landmarks or are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, we have an opportunity to further raise public awareness and acknowledge the key role these places played as part of this significant history. Since all the buildings are currently in use, the challenge lies in creating ways to preserve the structures, elevate their stories, and engage the public without interfering with current uses. Another challenge is connecting geographically dispersed stories into common narratives.
In partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Rep. Clyburn, lead sponsor in the House, and Sen. Coons, lead sponsor in the Senate, have introduced legislation to expand the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site and create National Park Service (NPS) Affiliated Areas, which connects all five of the historic sites representing litigants in the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision. This recognition will allow them to combine current uses with preservation and public education, as well as provide more technical assistance.
Then, in collaboration with local partners, we will use the Affiliated Areas status to better recognize the communities that fought for school integration, help them tell their own stories of Brown v. Board, and connect them to other stories of the fight for educational equity, past and present.
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