Timeline of Events Leading to the Brown v. Board of Education

Dred Scott v. John Sanford

The Supreme Court held that Blacks, enslaved or free, could not be citizens of the United States. Chief Justice Taney, arguing from the original intentions of the framers of the 1787 Constitution, stated that at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, Black people were considered a subordinate and inferior class of beings, "with no rights which the White man was bound to respect."

Significance: The Supreme Court denied citizenship to Black people, setting the stage for their treatment as second class citizens.

Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen's Bureau was established by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865. Its main mission was to provide relief and help freedmen become self-sufficient in all areas of life.

Significance: The first Black 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, including Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall.

Black Codes

Black Codes was a 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 Blacks were barred from serving on juries, and testifying against Whites.

Civil Rights Act of 1866

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 guaranteed Blacks basic economic rights to contract, sue, and own property.

Significance: The intention of this law was to protect all persons in the United States, including Blacks, in their civil rights.

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution is ratified.

Significance: 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.

Slaughterhouse Cases

These cases narrowly defined federal power and emasculated the Fourteenth Amendment by asserting that most of the rights of citizens remain under state control under the precedent of Barron v Baltimore, 1933

Significance: Pro-segregation states would come to justify their policies based on the notion that segregation in their public school systems was a state’s rights issue.

Civil Rights Act of 1875

In March, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, prohibiting discrimination in inns, theaters, and other places of public accommodation. It was the last Federal civil rights act passed until 1957.

Discrimination in places of public accommodation was prohibited.

Strauder v West Virginia

The Supreme Court overturned a West Virginia law declaring that only whites may serve on juries.

Significance:  The Court declared the law violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Serving on a jury is a fundamental right of citizenship that states cannot deny to anyone based on racial grounds.  The court declared that to deny citizen participation in the administration of justice solely on racial grounds "is practically a brand upon them, affixed by law; an assertion of their inferiority, and a stimulant to that race prejudice which is an impediment to securing to individuals of the race that equal justice which the law aims to secure to all others."

Civil Rights Cases

The Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and declared that the Fourteenth Amendment does not prohibit discrimination by private individuals or businesses.

Significance: The Court declared that the Fourteenth Amendment does not prohibit discrimination by private individuals or businesses, paving the way for segregation in public education.

Jim Crow

The practices of comprehensive racial segregation known as "Jim Crow" emerged, and racial separation becomes entrenched.  De Jure segregation begins to replace de facto segregation.

Significance: Blacks largely disappeared from juries in the South.

Florida was the first state to enact a statute requiring segregation in places of public accommodation. Eight other states followed Florida's lead by 1892.

Homer Adolph Plessy v. J.H. Ferguson

Homer A. Plessy challenged an 1890 Louisiana law that required separate train cars for Black Americans and White Americans. The Supreme Court held that separate but equal facilities for White and Black 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 Blacks with a badge of inferiority. That same line of argument would become a decisive factor in the Brown v. Board decision.

Cumming v. Board of Education of Richmond County

The Supreme Court upheld a local school board's decision to close a free public Black school due to fiscal constraints, despite the fact that the district continued to operate two free public white schools.

Significance: The Court’s opinion argued that there was no evidence in the record that the decision was based on racial discrimination and that the distribution of public funds for public education was within the discretion of school authorities.

Thurgood Marshall is born in Baltimore, MD, on July 2nd.

Significance: Thurgood Marshall would become the NAACP's lead counsel in the Brown v. Board of Education case.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People founded

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.

NAACP begins challenging segregation

Assisted by his protege Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, of the NAACP, began his strategy of challenging segregation in graduate and professional schools.

Significance: Houston developed a legal strategy that would eventually lead to victory over segregation in the nation’s schools through the Brown v. Board case. The strategy consists of first challenging separate and explicitly unequal facilities, then separate and implicitly unequal facilities, and finally challenging separation of the races as inherently unequal.

Gaines v. Canada

The Supreme Court decided in favor of Lloyd Gaines, a Black student who had been refused admission to the University of Missouri Law School.

Significance: This case set a precedent for other states to attempt to "equalize" Black school facilities, rather than integrate them. The Court held that the state must furnish Gaines "within its borders facilities for legal education substantially equal to those which the State there offered for the persons of the white race, whether or not other Negroes sought the same opportunity."  

Sweatt v. Painter

The Supreme Court held that the University of Texas Law School must admit a Black student, Herman Sweatt. The University of Texas Law School was far superior in its offerings and resources to the separate Black law school, which had been hastily established in a downtown basement.

Significance: The Supreme Court held that Texas failed to provide separate but equal education, prefiguring the future opinion in Brown that "separate but equal is inherently unequal."

v. Board of Education

Thurgood Marshall led the NAACP legal team into trial.

Significance: In August, a three-judge panel at the U. S. District Court unanimously held in the Brown v. Board of Education case that "no willful, intentional or substantial discrimination" existed in Topeka’s schools. The U. S. District Court found that the physical facilities in White and Black schools were comparable and that the lower court’s decisions in Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin only applied to graduate education.


Chief Justice Fred Vinson Jr. died unexpectedly of a heart attack on the 8th. President Eisenhower nominated California Governor Earl Warren to replace Vinson as interim Chief on the 30th. The Court rescheduled arguments in Brown for December.

Significance: Justice Earl Warren would go on to deliver the unanimous ruling in the Brown v. Board case.

Brown v. Board of Education

The Court overturned Cumming and Plessy, and declared that racial segregation in public schools violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Significance: The Court ruled that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment and was, therefore, unconstitutional. In the wake of the decision, the District of Columbia and some school districts in the border states began to desegregate their schools voluntarily.

State legislatures in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia adopted resolutions of "interposition and nullification" that declared the Court's decision to be "null, void, and no effect."

Various southern legislatures passed laws that imposed sanctions on anyone who implemented desegregation, and enacted school closing plans that authorized the suspension of public education, and the disbursement of public funds to parents to send their children to private schools.

Brown II

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.

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