Hoff: Weighing Brown v. Board of Education legacy


Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is a George Washington Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history and political science at Delaware State University. He has taught and published extensively on constitutional and civil rights issues.

The 70th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka affords us the opportunity to evaluate Delaware’s contribution to the case, as well as the decision’s impact on education here.

One underappreciated catalyst of educational changes in Delaware involved studies of deficiencies in separate segregated schools for Black students. For instance, reports from 1910 on found that differential funding, length of school year and Black student absences all affected Black education in a negative manner. These studies prompted the 1921 Delaware law requiring schools to remain racially separate but to be “uniform and equally effective.” Further, one could make the case that a 1943 Ph.D. dissertation by New York University student George Miller also played a major part in making the case for change. Miller’s study, “Adolescent Negro Education in Delaware,” pointed to the inequality of educational facilities and strengthened the evidence later used by advocates for integration.

The Brown v. Board of Education case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952 was actually a conglomeration of cases from several states — Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware — along with the District of Columbia. However, of the previous rulings in the aforementioned jurisdictions, only the Delaware courts had decided in favor of integration, both in the state Court of Chancery and the state Supreme Court. Accordingly, the final 1954 ruling resulted in affirming the Delaware court ruling, whereas it reversed earlier decisions against integration elsewhere.

Of course, much credit for the victory in the Brown v. Board case goes to the litigants, activists and lawyers involved in desegregating education in the United States. From Thurgood Marshall at the national level to Louis Redding in Delaware, the legal strategy attacking segregation was incremental rather than all at once, built on a series of court rulings. Meanwhile, students like Ethel Belton, Shirley Bulah and Brenda Evans were willing to challenge the system that was hurting their educational opportunities. While Belton’s and Bulah’s cases were combined in Delaware’s appeal to the Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v. Board ruling, Evans was one of the plaintiffs in the Evans v. Buchanan case. Starting a year after the Brown v. Board of Education II ruling in 1955, the Evans v. Buchanan case saw some 30 rulings over 34 years.

Prompted by the combination of the Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education and its own severe and prolonged opposition to desegregation of its schools, Delaware unwillingly led an experiment in social engineering: mandatory school busing to bring Black students to Caucasian schools. In fact, Delaware’s experience was the first in which interdistrict busing was ordered. While the immediate outcome of the policy was hotly debated, the long-term advantages are apparent.

Congress also kept up the momentum for desegregation in education and other segments of American society. Starting in 1957, the national legislature passed a series of civil rights bills, which were subsequently signed into law by presidents of both political parties. Too, the 1965 Voting Rights Act provided necessary protections against discrimination.

Unfortunately, while Brown v. Board’s legacy is overwhelmingly positive, there are some areas of continuing concern. One was identified by Rann Miller in a recent Philadelphia Daily News column: the lack of Black teachers, which is still in the single digits as a percentage of all educators. Another problem is the negating of affirmative action admission policies in higher education, as a result of the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision, creating less opportunities for Black student enrollment in the first place. Finally, attacks on voting rights have intimidated and frightened many citizens, who may sit out critical local elections for school boards, thereby reducing the likelihood of recommended revisions. Within Delaware, the consequences of pervasive separate and unequal treatment of education still linger amid a decentralized school district system.

Ultimately, the most important lesson of Brown v. Board of Education is that movements of moral clarity that advance rights and reduce discrimination are bound for historical success.

Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at civiltalk@iniusa.org.

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