The Brown v. Board Plaintiffs

The Brown Family

Audio: Brown Plaintiff John Stokes -- on Tavis Smiley Show

Delaware – Belton v. Gebhart (Bulah v. Gebhart)

First petitioned in 1951, these local cases challenged the inferior conditions of two black schools designated for African American children. In the suburb of Claymont, African American children were prohibited from attending the area’s local high school. Instead, they had to ride a school bus for nearly an hour to attend Howard High School in Wilmington. Located in an industrial area of the state’s capital city, Howard High School also suffered from a deficient curriculum, pupil-teacher ratio, teacher training, extra curricular activities program, and physical plant. In the rural community of Hockessin, African American students were forced to attend a dilapidated one-room school house and were not provided transportation to the school, while white children in the area were provided transportation and a better school facility. In both cases, Louis Redding, a local NAACP attorney, represented the plaintiffs, African American parents. Although the State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, the decision did not apply to all schools in Delaware. These class action cases were named for Ethel Belton and Shirley Bulah.

Kansas – Brown v. Board of Education

In 1950 the Topeka NAACP, led by McKinley Burnett, set out to organize a legal challenge to an 1879 State law that permitted racially segregated elementary schools in certain cities based on population. For Kansas this would become the 12th case filed in the state focused on ending segregation in public schools. The local NAACP assembled a group of 13 parents who agreed to be plaintiffs on behalf of their 20 children. Following direction from legal counsel they attempted to enroll their children in segregated white schools and all were denied. Topeka operated eighteen neighborhood schools for white children, while African American children had access to only four schools. In February of 1951 the Topeka NAACP filed a case on their behalf. Although this was a class action it was named for one of the plaintiffs Oliver Brown.

South Carolina - Briggs v. Elliot

In Claredon County, the State NAACP first attempted, unsuccessfully and with a single plaintiff, to take legal action in 1947 against the inferior conditions African American students experienced under South Carolina’s racially segregated school system. By 1951, community activist Rev. J.A. DeLaine, convinced African American parents to join the NAACP efforts to file a class action suit in U.S. District Court. The Court found that the schools designated for African Americans were grossly inadequate in terms of buildings, transportation and teacher’s salaries when compared to the schools provided for whites. An order to equalize the facilities was virtually ignored by school officials and the schools were never made equal. This class action case was named for Harry Briggs, Sr.

Virginia – Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County

One of the few public high schools available to African Americans in the state was Robert Moton High School in Prince Edward County. Built in 1943, it was never large enough to accommodate its student population. Eventually hastily constructed tar paper covered buildings were added as classrooms. The gross inadequacies of these classrooms sparked a student strike in 1951. Organized by sixteen year old Barbara Johns, the students initially sought to acquire a new building with indoor plumbing. The NAACP soon joined their struggles and challenged the inferior quality of their school facilities in court. Although the U.S. District Court ordered that the plaintiffs be provided with equal school facilities, they were denied access to the white schools in their area. This class action case was named for Dorothy Davis.

Washington, DC – Bolling v. C. Melvin Sharpe

Eleven African American junior High School students were taken on a field trip to the cities new modern John Phillip Sousa school for whites only. Accompanied by local activist Gardner Bishop, who requested admittance for the students and was denied, the African American students were ordered to return to their grossly inadequate school. A suit was filed on their behalf in 1951. After review with the Brown case in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled "segregation in the District of Columbia public schools…is a denial of the due process of law guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment…" This class action case was named for Spottswood Bolling.