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Duke University Press Books
From the Grassroots to the Supreme Court: Brown v. Board of Education and American Democracy

From the Grassroots to the Supreme Court: Brown v. Board of Education and American Democracy

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822334491
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 12/07/2004
Series: Constitutional Conflicts Series
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Peter F. Lau is an independent scholar who earned his doctorate in history from Rutgers University. He has taught at Rutgers and the University of Rhode Island. Currently he is teaching history at Lincoln School in Providence, Rhode Island.

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From the grassroots to the Supreme Court

Brown v. Board of Education and American Democracy
By Peter Lau

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3449-6

Chapter One


Plessy and Early Challenges to the Doctrine of "Separate, but Equal"

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) represents the legal and historical benchmark for Jim Crow legislation. The ill-fated case established the precedent of "equal, but separate" which shaped African American legal battles against segregation throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Numerous legal scholars have probed the arguments of Plessy's attorney, Albion Tourgee, before the U.S. Supreme Court, highlighting the difficulties of establishing rights in the obscurities of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Similarly, historians have aptly outlined the Court's reluctance to defend black rights in a time of legal and social repression, and examined the terrible consequences of segregation law in the South.

However, the broader social circumstances from which Plessy emerged have been less well probed. Plessy v. Ferguson was the result of the collective organizing efforts of important men of color in New Orleans. After the joint efforts of black freedmen and Afro-Creole leaders had failed to block the passage of a Louisiana law separating black and white train passengers, a small group of leading Creoles of color established the Citizens' Committee for theAnnulment of Act No. III Commonly Known as the Separate Car Law. The Committee engaged Homer Plessy, a working-class Afro-Creole resident of New Orleans, to be arrested and press a test case against the East Louisiana Railroad in the summer of 1892.

The committee's efforts to contest the onslaught of segregation included exceptional efforts to promote integrationist ideals and advance a vision of American citizenship transcendent of racial boundaries. Drawing on their own racial ambiguities as the fair-skinned descendants of European and slave forebears, the Afro-Creole leaders of New Orleans questioned the logic of segregation in a mixed-race society, cogently challenging the meaning of categories that classified some white-skinned people as "Negro." Central to their effort to dispute racial categories, Afro-Creole leaders also sought to defend the citizenship rights of all Americans no matter their color and to establish coalitions with sympathetic whites. At a moment when it might have been more politic to argue for their own exceptional social status, members of the Citizens' Committee argued on behalf of all African Americans. But increasingly, their argument against Jim Crow and in favor of an integrated society brought them into conflict with the community of freed blacks. Afro-Creole efforts to defend integration eventually led them to deplore all-black institutions as symbols of a growing system of legal segregation, rather than of African American autonomy. As Creoles of color were increasingly excluded from integrated spaces, they resented being shunted into black institutions. But Americanized blacks outside the Creole community had worked hard to create and defend black schools and churches, and although they vigorously contested segregated public accommodations, they gained strength within their own institutions.

This chapter examines the divides of color and culture that complicated the efforts of African Americans in New Orleans to contest the Louisiana state law segregating railroads by race in the 1890s. Although most African- Americans at the turn of the century were concerned with achieving equality and social justice, sought to maintain citizenship rights through the ballot, and desired safe and just recognition in the broader public sphere, they disagreed on how to achieve these ends. Creoles of color believed that the fight for equality and the fight for integration were inextricable. For the members of their unique community, integration was not merely a tactical means of gaining equality but a connection to their past as free people of color in a slave society. Fair inclusion was their legacy, and they sought to defend the limited liberties they had enjoyed as free people during the age of slavery.

Much like the NAACP attorneys who argued before the Supreme Court in Brown more than sixty years later, Creoles of color contested segregation as a stigmatizing system that marked people of color as inferior. They believed that an ideal society would be an integrated one, one where color did not matter. From public accommodations to primary schools, colleges, churches, and neighborhoods, Creoles of color believed that distinctions based on color had no place.

The story of Plessy v. Ferguson marks an odd but telling moment in African American history. As we reflect on the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education and what it has meant for African Americans and the larger nation, and as we debate the meaning of equality and the merits and possibilities of creating a "colorblind society," we would do well to recall the historical moment when the doctrine of "equal, but separate" came into being. Though the rise of Jim Crow had many sources, the constitutional doctrine was itself the product, in part, of a particular social struggle among African American communities in the city of New Orleans over the best way to advance in an era of constrained choices. The history of organizing that predated Plessy provides a historical lens through which to examine the messy complexity of the contemporary debate over equality and inclusion.

A Divided People: The Histories of Two African American Communities in New Orleans

Histories of the antebellum Creoles of color emphasize their distinctive in-between status. Afro-Creoles had a unique legacy marked by differences of culture, color, and language. The cosmopolitan and racially diverse city of New Orleans had once been home to alternatives to strict racial segregation. The French-speaking descendants of free people of color, gens de couleur libres, or Creoles of color, were a unique community. Their legacy could be traced to the French and Spanish colonial era, when racially mixed slaves and free black emigres from Haiti moved to New Orleans, where they gained a degree of social and political freedom in the late eighteenth century. The colonial era in Louisiana was distinctive: French and Spanish colonists were permitted to free and educate the children whom they had fathered with black slave women. As a result, Louisiana was home to thousands of free descendants of mixed unions.

During the antebellum period, free people of color gained a stronger economic and social foothold. Some became skilled tradesmen, purchasing both land and slaves, while seeking education at home and in Europe. Others became part of the city's vibrant working class, finding employment as longshoremen, draymen, and factory workers. White Creoles, mixed French and Spanish descendants of white colonists, never identified with their colored counterparts. However, members of their community began to gradually blend into Creole society, integrating Creole neighborhoods and Catholic churches and schools. Free people of color created a distinct niche in New Orleans society, one that allowed for greater autonomy and freedom than black slaves enjoyed.

Although Creoles of color enjoyed the privileges of liberty, segregation laws and customs increasingly circumscribed their freedom after Louisiana became part of the United States in 1803. Theaters were the first public accommodations to be legally segregated in 1816, followed by jails in the 1830s. While a privileged few Creoles of color had been educated in the private schools of New Orleans, they were officially barred from the public school system when it was initiated in the 1840s. Philanthropists from the community such as Thomy Lafon and Aristide Marie founded and financed a number of private institutions, providing increased opportunities for education to both poor and privileged students of color. But Creoles of color always resisted racial separations, and whenever they could they sought to slip past the city's color lines through artful persuasion or silently passing for white.

Afro-Creoles existed in the murky middle between free white society and enslaved blacks, and they suffered a severe erosion of their citizenship rights as fears of slave insurrections led by free people of color peaked in the mid-nineteenth century. But despite these challenges, Creoles of color enjoyed a more liberated existence than other free black people and black slaves in the American South. With this second-class citizenship, Afro-Creoles were able to build a society rich in culture and relatively sheltered from most of the barbs of race prejudice and violence that slaves and rural free blacks faced. After emancipation, Creoles of color became the reluctant leaders of the less fortunate former slaves. But identity in New Orleans remained distinctively marked, divided by color, language, and heritage.

Afro-Creole legislators led the fight to dissolve the color line, successfully passing laws desegregating public schools and accommodations during the Constitutional Convention of 1867-68. In the postwar period, Creoles of color took full advantage of their newly affirmed rights as citizens, integrating public schools and participating in the city's public life. Not only did people of color in New Orleans gain a sure foothold on citizenship, they also became more fully ingrained in a network of racial integration-attending Catholic mass with white congregants, living in racially integrated neighborhoods in the French Quarter, attending Carnival festivities, public plays, and sporting events, and riding freely on public conveyances. This is not to suggest that the lives of Creoles of color were free from discrimination and oppression; race remained a tremendous barrier to even the most successful. And the systematic violence of white repression that threatened African American voters in rural Louisiana reverberated in the cities as well.

Unless they chose to separate from their family, friends, and communities and pass for white, Afro-Creoles in New Orleans could not escape the larger social reality of race. Some light-skinned Creoles of color desired the privileges usually connected with white skin, and deeply resented their invisible connection to blackness. In 1877 an angry Creole of color wrote anonymously about his social discomfort. He believed that there was no racial middle ground, even for those who appeared to be white. He angrily complained that "a person having a few drops of african blood in his veins, no matter how white he may be is considered a nigger." Pressing the viewpoint of the Afro-Creoles who had decided to pass permanently as white citizens, he continued, "I think that man has a right to choose for himself, weather [sic] he will be a white man or a nigger. So it is, the moral suffering of a man having a little Negro blood in his veins is something terrible-for he is always in hot water." Some descendants of free people of color felt enslaved by their black heritage and sought ways to distance themselves, not only from other African Americans but also from black identity.

But the majority of Afro-Creoles were not as bitter about their racial status. Not all Creoles of color were pale-skinned enough to pass for white, but more importantly, most did not want to break with their family, friends, culture, and community simply to become white. Rather than choose the social isolation and personal risk that came with passing for white, they chose to emphasize their unique place in society and the history of New Orleans and fought to maintain their tenuous hold on middle-ground status.

Although much of the historical record focuses on the elite Creole leaders, as a group Creoles of color were also separated into classes, along lines of wealth, employment, and privilege. Most Creoles of color were not wealthy and propertied: they lived their lives in circumstances similar to those of Homer Plessy. Like Plessy, most Afro-Creole people in New Orleans were literate, skilled laborers employed in cigar factories, or artisans such as metal workers and stonemasons. When litigation began, Plessy's occupation was listed as shoemaker; by 1902 the city directory listed him as a laborer. Plessy held a variety of jobs during his working life; his biographer reports that he was employed as a clerk, a warehouse laborer, and an insurance collector in his lifetime. The labor of working-class Creoles was distinct; their jobs separated them from the elite Afro-Creole professional class as well as from the masses of unskilled black workers. And although working-class Creoles of color lived in integrated neighborhoods on the French side of Canal Street, they seldom resided in the city's more exclusive sections. Like many, Plessy lived in the city's Treme section along with his wife in a rented house near the famed Congregation Hall. Plessy's Creole status and light skin may have allowed him some intracommunity privilege, but he was far from elite.

Homer Plessy was part of a community of color with a unique legacy and an unusual approach to questions of race. The majority of Creoles of color had battled hard to break down the color line and valued colorblind inclusion in the city of their birth. They approached the fight against turn-of-the-century Jim Crow laws with a distinct outlook and a belief in the value of an integrated society. But opportunities for African Americans of both Creole and American descent began shrinking in the 1890s with the advent of more formal laws barring blacks from public accommodations. Afro-Creoles united with newly freed blacks to contest the growth of segregation. But these two communities had different origins and their views on the problem of segregation were distinct.

The descendants of the freed slaves who resided in New Orleans or migrated to it faced more difficult circumstances than the Creoles of color. After emancipation, freed slaves were attracted to the city, seeking work and the security of an urban setting. This migration continued in the decades after Reconstruction. Between 1880 and 1900, more than twenty thousand new black migrants moved to the expanding city from the rural counties of Louisiana and Mississippi. But dire circumstances faced the migrants. Nearly half the black population of New Orleans was illiterate in 1890. Lynching and racial violence increasingly threatened the black populace, as did dismal urban living conditions. By the turn of the century the hot and often-flooded city had no sewage system, so sickness and disease plagued the poorest residents. But the poor and working class gained a sure hold on citizenship during Reconstruction and the decades that followed, fighting hard to maintain their right to vote and fair representation in every aspect of public life.

Black residents of New Orleans had only continued to progress because of autonomous efforts to improve their communities. By 1890 black illiteracy had dropped dramatically, aided in part by black educators who supplemented the poor system of public education through black churches and mutual aid societies. Black communities established church schools and Sunday schools to meet the tremendous need for education. Care for the physical health of poor black residents also improved. Community efforts to organize black hospitals and black mutual aid and benevolent societies helped brighten a bleak black public health record. Numerous societies of middle-class and poor African Americans made valiant attempts to address the needs of their community.

Blacks in New Orleans also built some coalitions with white residents. Many noted politicians who emerged as leaders in the Republican Party were not part of the Creole elite. During Reconstruction, blacks successfully worked alongside white politicians for more than fifteen years. The black electorate's support of the Republican Party held back the tide of white supremacy and violence during Reconstruction. Coalition building also buttressed the city's working class. Interracial unionism among the city's dockworkers dramatically improved conditions for black and white longshoremen. During the general strike of 1892, twenty thousand black and white longshoremen and dockworkers united to improve pay and working conditions.

But most of the progress that black people experienced grew out of autonomous improvement efforts. A black middle class slowly emerged from the population of former slaves and their children in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. A class of educators, preachers, merchants, and businesspeople nurtured by black churches and schools grew prominent and more successful, serving as community leaders for blacks who lived outside the Vieux Carre or "French City." Thus over time New Orleans developed a divided black leadership class, one Creole and one non-Creole. These two communities not only maintained separate societies but distinctly different approaches to the questions of race, equality, and integration.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction / Peter F. Lau 1

Part I: Historical Contexts: Views from the Grassroots

Plessy and Early Challenges to the Doctrine of “Separate, but Equal” / Blair L. M. Kelley 19

Tapestries of Resistance: Episodes of School Segregation and Desegregation in the Western United States / Vicki L. Ruiz 44

Within the Shadow of Jim Crow: Black Struggles for Education and Liberation in North Carolina / Raymond Gavins 68

“Liberating Lifescripts”: Price Edward County, Virginia, and the Roots of Brown v. Board of Education / Kara Miles Turner 88

From the Periphery to the Center: Clarendon County, South Carolina, Brown, and the Struggle for Democracy and Equality in America / Peter F. Lau 105

Part II: Advocates, Judges, and the Making of Brown

A Civil Rights Vanguard: Black Attorneys and the NAACP in Virginia / Larissa M. Smith 129

Prelude to Brown: Education and the Struggle for Racial Justice during the NAACP’s Formative Decades, 1909-1934 / Patricia Sullivan 154

J. Waties Waring and the Making of Liberal Jurisprudence in Postwar America / Christopher W. Schmidt 173

Brown v. Board of Education: Law of Politics? / Michael J. Klarman 198

Part III: Historical Impact: Views from the Grassroots

The Impact of Lawyer-Client Disengagement on the NAACP’s Campaign to Implement Brown v. Board of Education in Atlanta / Tomiko Brown-Nagin 227

“The New Negro Ain’t Scared No More!”: Black Women’s Activism in North Carolina and the Meaning of Brown / Christina Greene 245

The Rural-Urban Matrix in the 1950s South: Rethinking Racial Struggles in Memphis / Laurie B. Green 270

New York, Puerto Ricans, and the Dilemmas of Integration / Madeleine E. Lopez 300

Part IV: Life, Law, and Culture in Post-Brown America

“Stretching Out”: Living and Remembering Brown , 1945-1970 / Waldo E. Martin Jr. 321

The Supreme Court’s Two Principles of Equality, From Brown to 2003 / Mark V. Tushnet 340

Brown v. Board of Education and its Impact on Black Education in America / Davison M. Douglas 361

Conclusion: Brown and Historical Memory / Peter F. Lau 383

Bibliography 387

Notes on the Contributors 391

Index 395

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