December 21, 2020

How Black Women Changed the Face of Education in America

Discover the students, mothers, and activists involved in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka is one of the most famous Supreme Court cases in American history, known best for striking down the doctrine of ‘separate but equal.” This case involved five communities in Kansas, Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C., resulted in the desegregation of schools, and continued the fight for educational equity.

Although the public’s knowledge about the decision often focuses on one case and a handful of people, many more individuals across the five separate communities were proactive in making this historic landmark decision happen. These cases involved dozens of Black women who outnumbered Black men as plaintiffs, serving as the backbone of the movement that changed the education system in the United States forever.

Harvard University professor and African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Advisory Council member Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham details that the work, bravery, and persistence of these women during the Civil Rights Movement helped these local cases gain national recognition. The genesis of school desegregation began with the community work of these mothers, students, and activists in all five communities.

Although Brown v. Board is often mentioned with one school or person in mind, these communities made sacrifices and tirelessly strategized in schools, churches, and other institutions to legalize school integration across the country. The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently named Brown vs. Board of Education a National Treasure as part of our work to tell the full story of this landmark case.

“These schools are so important,” Higginbotham said. “They are the sites of history and people need to know that. When the full story is told, it becomes even richer. I think when you understand this is a community effort, it shows you the importance of working together to make change. It's inspiring to people.”

Even before Brown v. Board of Education, Black women such as Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams from Trenton, New Jersey, and Marguerite Daisy Carr from Washington, D.C. ignited the fight and set a precedent for equal education. They paved the way for civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s like Ruth Batson and Ellen Jackson, from Boston, Massachusetts, who worked to dismantle discriminatory laws and policies that prohibited Black students from receiving the proper schooling and transportation they deserved.

These women are responsible for creating the movement to fight against the racial inequities in America outside of education. They were on the ground doing the work and paved the way for the current work for racial and social equality in the nation. These women are the ones who changed the course of American history.

Here we honor the mothers, students, and activists involved in the five cases collectively known as Brown v. Board of Education.

Photograph of Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark

photo by: Library of Congress

Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark and Dr. Kenneth Clark's studies were critical in the success of Brown v. Board of Education.

Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark

As a trailblazing Black woman in the social sciences, Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark specialized in the pathology of racism as a psychologist. She and her husband, Dr. Kenneth Clark, conducted tests using white and black baby dolls to demonstrate internalized racism in Black children. Kenneth served as an expert witness for plaintiffs in the Belton (Bulah) v. Gebhart, Davis v. Prince Edward County, Briggs v. Elliott trials. The U.S. Supreme Court cited the research in the Brown v. Board decision.

The Clarks were the first people to open a full-time child guidance center, called the Northside Center for Child Development, in Harlem. They were also the first Black Americans to receive doctorates in psychology from Columbia University.

Darlene Brown, Linda Brown, Lucinda Todd, and Nancy Todd (Kansas)

The local NAACP chapter in Topeka, Kansas initiated Brown v. Board in 1950 to challenge the countrywide “separate but equal” doctrine and the city’s segregated schooling policy for elementary schools. Thirteen families tried to enroll their children in local schools but were all denied, and instead the children had to travel for hours to attend the four schools designated for Black students. The parents filed a suit that became the namesake for the federal combined Brown v. Board case.

Linda Brown, the daughter of plaintiffs Oliver and Darlene Brown, was in the third grade when nearby Sumner Elementary School of Topeka denied her and her peers’ admission into the school because of their race. Instead, Linda had to attend all-Black Monroe School, which was much further from her home. She was placed at the center of the case after her parents Oliver and Darlene Brown, along with twelve other families, filed the historic lawsuit.

A mother, activist, and schoolteacher, Lucinda Todd served as the secretary of the local NAACP chapter in Topeka. Todd was the first plaintiff to volunteer for the Topeka Board of Education lawsuit after her daughter, Nancy Todd, was denied enrollment in the neighborhood schools in the summer of 1950. Todd opened her home to become the headquarters of the local fight for school desegregation.

Ethel Belton, Ethel Louise Belton, Sarah Bulah, and Shirley Bulah (Delaware)

Delaware had two individual cases included in the Supreme Court case. The cases were against the State Board of Education and named after board member Francis B. Gebhart.

Parents in both cases were frustrated with the distance their children had to travel to get to school. The state did not provide bus transportation for Black children, despite having a bus for white students pass by their homes every day. The parents tried to enroll their 11 kids into the white neighborhood schools, but the schools denied them.

The Chancellor of the court, Collins Seitz, ruled that the plaintiffs did not receive equal protection under the law and ordered their enrollment in the white schools. The board of education appealed the decision, but this is the only case under Brown v. Board that decided in favor of the plaintiffs at the state level.

A 1964 image of Linda Brown Smith, Ethel Louise Belton Brown, Harry Briggs, Jr., and Spottswood Bolling, Jr.  all central to the Brown vs. Board of Education Case that ended legal segregation in schools in the United States. at a press conference at the Hotel Americana.

photo by: Library of Congress

Linda Brown Smith, Ethel Louise Belton Brown, Harry Briggs, Jr., and Spottswood Bolling, Jr. during a press conference at Hotel Americana.

Serving as one of the ten plaintiffs in Belton v. Gebhart, Ethel Belton’s daughter, Ethel Louise Belton, was one of the students who traveled two hours every day from Claymont to Wilmington to attend the all-Black high school, Howard High School. They both testified at the state trial.

Sarah Bulah petitioned many times for the Department of Public Instruction to allow her daughter, Shirley, and other Black children bus transportation to get to Hockessin Colored School #107. Although the department rejected her petition and she lacked community support, Sarah took matters into her own hands. She received assistance from the NAACP in Wilmington to sue for school integration.

Barbara Johns, Carrie Stokes, Dorothy Davis (Virginia)

NAACP attorneys Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill filed the 1951 Davis v. Prince Edward County case after 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns led a student walkout at Robert Russa Moton High School on April 23, 1951, due to deplorable school conditions. Johns and her classmate, Carrie Stokes, sought legal support from the NAACP in Richmond, and the attorneys filed the lawsuit on behalf of 117 students to strike down the state law requiring segregated schools in Virginia.

This Virginia case became a part of the Brown v. Board Supreme Court case in 1954. Following the Supreme Court decision, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors enacted a “campaign of massive resistance” against school integration. They refused to appropriate any funds for the County School Board, which caused their schools to close for five years between 1959-1964, denying an education to a generation of kids.

Full of bravery, courage, and determination, eleventh-grade student Barbara Rose Johns led a two-week student strike at all-Black Robert Russa Moton School in Farmville. A total of 450 students participated in the strike to protest poor school conditions. Students dealt with overcrowding, and the school also lacked a gymnasium, cafeteria, infirmary, and teachers’ restrooms. Johns did not carry the lead plaintiff’s name in the case and was not involved in it because her parents feared for her safety. Instead, the case took the last name of ninth-grade student Dorothy Davis.

Barbara Johns on the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial

photo by: Ron Cogswell via Flicker CC BY 2.0

Barbara Johns' commemoration on the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond, Virginia.

Eliza Briggs (South Carolina)

Briggs v. Elliott is named after Harry Briggs, who was one of twenty parents who filed a suit against the school board for Clarendon County, South Carolina, to end school segregation. R.W. Elliott served as the president of the school board for Clarendon County, South Carolina.

The parents initially petitioned for the county to provide busing transportation for Black students. The county, unfortunately, ignored their request. They instead filed a suit to seek the integration of schools in the fall of 1950. The U.S. District Court, consisting of three judges, denied the plaintiffs’ request, but they did approve the school board to begin equalizing the schools.

Eliza Briggs and her husband Henry, parents of young children, were the first two people out of 100 people to sign the petition to advocate for equal educational opportunities in 1949. Due to their advocacy, the couple lost their jobs and eventually had to relocate because they refused to remove their names from the petition.

Sarah Bolling (Washington, D.C.)

Bolling v. Sharpe isn’t directly associated with Brown v. Board and the other cases, but is equally important. This case held the federal government to the same non-discrimination standards as the states when the Supreme Court provided a separate opinion based on the Fifth Amendment because the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply in Washington, D.C.

The case began in 1947 when Gardner Bishop and the Consolidated Parents Group, Inc. started a campaign to end school desegregation. Bishop tried to admit 11 Black students into John Philip Sousa Junior High School in 1950, but the school rejected them.

Well-known African American lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston originally represented the group, but James Nabrit, Jr. Eventually replaced him. Nabrit only argued on the case of segregation and not poor school conditions. The U.S. District Court dismissed the case because of the prior Carr v. Corning court case that ruled that segregated schools were constitutional in the District of Columbia. Nabrit still filed an appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court considered the case with the other four.

Along with two other adults, Sarah Bolling filed the lawsuit for five Black children, because Sousa Junior High School denied the students admission based on their race or color. She was the mother of one of the minor plaintiffs, 11-year-old Spottswood Thomas Bolling, who traveled across town to attend Shaw Junior High.

View the list of every woman involved in the Brown v. Board Supreme Court case here. Learn more about the National Trust work to tell the full story of Brown vs. Board of Education.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Brianna Rhodes is a journalist and entrepreneur who writes on various topics, including Black culture, diversity and inclusion, race, and social justice. She is also the founder of a creative agency called Brianna Rhodes Writes. She is a past Fellow of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

Announcing the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

See the List