Selected historical events that had an impact on the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education are highlighted on this page and presented in chronological order. Use the tabs below to read about each historical event in history.
The Supreme Court denied citizenship to African American people, setting the stage for their treatment as second class citizens.
The first African American schools were set up under the direction of the Freedmen’s Bureau. One of those schools —Howard University —would eventually train and graduate the majority of the legal team that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, including Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall.
"Black Codes" was the name given to laws passed by southern governments established during the presidency of Andrew Johnson. These laws imposed severe restrictions on freedmen, such as prohibiting their right to vote, forbidding them to sit on juries, and limiting their right to testify against white men. They were also forbidden from carrying weapons in public places and working in certain occupations.
Significance: Segregation Begins - Public schools were segregated, and African Americans were barred from serving on juries, and testifying against Whites.
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declared that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Formally abolishing slavery in the United States, the 13th Amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865
The 14th Amendment overruled Dred Scott v. Sanford. It guaranteed that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States and of the state in which they reside, and that no state shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens, deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person the equal protection of the law.
The Court declared that the Fourteenth Amendment does not prohibit discrimination by private individuals or businesses, paving the way for segregation in public education.
Homer A. Plessy challenged an 1890 Louisiana law that required separate train cars for African Americans and White Americans. The Supreme Court held that separate but equal facilities for White and African American railroad passengers did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Significance: Plessy v. Ferguson established the “separate but equal” doctrine that would become the constitutional basis for segregation.
Justice John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter in Plessy, argued that forced segregation of the races stamped African Americans with a badge of inferiority. That same line of argument would become a decisive factor in the Brown v. Board decision.
W.E.B. DuBois, Ida Wells-Barnett, Mary White Ovington, and others founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Their mission was to eliminate lynching, and to fight racial and social injustice, primarily through legal action.
Significance: The NAACP became the primary tool for the legal attack on segregation, eventually trying the Brown v. Board of Education case.
Marshall succeeded his mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston.
Significance: Thurgood Marshall would eventually lead counsel in the Brown v. Board of Education case.
Brown v. Board of Education was filed in the U.S. District Court in Topeka, Kansas, in February 1951.The case was litigated concurrently with Briggs v. Elliot in South Carolina.
Significance: The NAACP defense team attacked the "equal" standard so that the "separate" standard would, in turn, become vulnerable.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, declaring that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Significance: The Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, and declared that racial segregation in public schools violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
May 31: Brown II—with all deliberate speed
On the last day of the term, the Supreme Court handed down Brown II, ordering that desegregation occur with "all deliberate speed."
Significance: Brown II was intended to work out the mechanics of desegregation. Due to the vagueness of the term "all deliberate speed," many states were able to stall the Court’s order to desegregate their schools. The legal and social obstacles that southern states put in place and encouraged, in their effort to thwart integration, served as a catalyst for the student protests that launched the civil rights movement.