School integration in the United States

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An integrated classroom in Anacostia High School, Washington, D.C. in 1957

School integration in the United States is the process of ending race-based segregation, also known as desegregation, within American public and private schools. Racial segregation in schools existed throughout most of American history and remains a relevant issue in discussions about modern education. During the Civil Rights Movement school integration became a priority but since then segregation has risen again.[1]


Early history of integrated schools[edit]

Some schools around America were integrated before the mid-20th century, the first ever school being Lowell High School in Massachusetts, which has accepted students of all races at its inception. The earliest known African American student, Caroline Van Vronker, attended the school in 1843. The integration of all American schools was a major catalyst for the civil rights action and racial violence that occurred in the United States during the latter half of the 20th century.

After the Civil War, the first legislation providing rights to African-Americans was passed. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, also known as the Reconstruction Amendments, which were passed between 1865 and 1870, abolished slavery, guaranteed citizenship and protection under the law, and prohibited racial discrimination in voting, respectively.[2]

Jim Crow south[edit]

Despite these Reconstruction amendments, blatant discrimination took place through what would come to be known as Jim Crow laws. As a result of these laws, African-Americans were required to sit on different park benches, use different drinking fountains, and ride in different railroad cars than their white counterparts, among other segregated aspects of life.[3] Though the Civil Rights Act of 1875 prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, in 1896 the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson that racially segregated public facilities such as schools, parks, and public transportation were legally permissible as long as they were equal in quality.[3] This separate but equal doctrine legalized segregation in schools.

Black schools[edit]

This institutionalized discrimination led to the creation of black schools—or segregated schools for children of African-American descent. With the help of philanthropists such as Julius Rosenwald and black leaders such as Booker T. Washington, black schools began to gain repute and became respectable institutions. These schools soon assumed prominent places in black communities, with teachers being seen as highly respected community leaders.[4] However, despite their important role in black communities, black schools remained underfunded and ill-equipped, particularly in comparison to white schools. For example, between 1902 and 1918, the General Education Board—a philanthropic organization created to strengthen public schools in the south—gave $2.4 million to black schools and over $25 million to white schools.

Legal action[edit]

Throughout the first half of the 20th century there were several efforts to combat school segregation, but few were successful. However, in a unanimous 1954 decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The NAACP legal team representing Brown, led by Thurgood Marshall, argued that racially separate schools were inherently unequal, as society as a whole looked down upon African-Americans and racially segregated schools only reinforced this.[5] They supported their argument with research from psychologists and social scientists in order to empirically prove that segregated schools inflicted psychological harm on black students.[6] These expert testimonies, coupled with the concrete knowledge of black schools having worse facilities than white schools and black teachers being paid less than white teachers, contributed to the landmark, unanimous decision.[6]

Initial responses to school integration[edit]


Protest of the integration of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1959

Despite the federal ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, integration was met with immediate opposition. In 1955, Time magazine reviewed the status of desegregation efforts in the 17 southern and border states, grading them from "A" to "F" as follows:[7][8]

Grade State
B B+
C C+
D D+

A policy of "massive resistance" was declared by Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd and led to the closing of nine schools in four counties in Virginia between 1958 and 1959; those in Prince Edward County, Virginia remained closed until 1964.[9]

Supporting this policy, a majority of Southern congressmen in the U.S. House of Representative signed a document in 1956 called the Southern Manifesto, which disavowed the racial integration of public institutions such as schools.[10]

In 1957, in accordance with massive resistance, Governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus called upon the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine black students from attending the newly desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.[11] In response, President Dwight D. Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to safely escort the group of students - soon to be known as the Little Rock Nine - to their classes in the midst of violent protests from an angry mob of white students and civilians.[12]


Prominent black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and the Atlanta Daily World praised the Brown decision for upholding racial equality and civil rights.[13] The editors of these newspapers recognized the momentous nature and symbolic importance of the decision.[13] Immediately, Brown v. Board of Education proved to be a catalyst in inciting the push for equal rights in southern communities, just as Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall had hoped when they devised the legal strategy behind it.[14] Less than a year after the Brown decision, the Montgomery bus boycott began—another important step in the fight for African-American civil rights.[14] Today, Brown v. Board of Education is largely viewed as the starting point of the Civil Rights Movement.[15]

By the 1960s and 70s, the Civil Rights Movement had gained significant support. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited segregation and discrimination based on race in public facilities, including schools, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in voting affairs. In 1971 the Supreme Court in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education approved the use of busing to achieve desegregation, despite racially segregated neighborhoods and limited radii of school districts. By 1988 school integration reached an all-time high with nearly 45% of black students attending previously all-white schools.[2]


Brown II[edit]

After Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional, the implementation of desegregation was discussed in a follow-up Supreme Court case termed Brown II.[16] Though the NAACP lawyers argued for an immediate timetable of integration, the Supreme Court issued an ambiguous order that school districts should integrate with “all deliberate speed."[13][17]

Integration in response to Brown[edit]

On August 23, 1954, 11 black children attended school with approximately 480 white students in Charleston, Arkansas. The school superintendent made an agreement with local media not to discuss the event, and attempts to gain information by other sources were deliberately ignored. The process went very smoothly, followed by a similar action in Fayetteville, Arkansas the same fall. The following year, the integration of schools in Hoxie, Arkansas drew national coverage from Life Magazine, and bitter opposition from White Citizen's Councils and segregationist politicians ensued.[18]

Opposition to integration[edit]

Various options arose that allowed white populations to avoid the forced integration of public schools. After the Brown decision, many white families living in urban areas moved to predominately suburban areas in order to take advantage of the wealthier and whiter schools there.[19][20] William Henry Kellar, in his study of school desegregation in Houston, Texas, described the process of white flight in Houston's Independent School District. He noted that white students made up 49.9 percent of HISD's enrollment in 1970, but that number steadily dropped over the decade.[21] White enrollment comprised only 25.1 percent of HISD's student population by 1980.[21]

Another way that white families avoided integration was by withdrawing their children from their local public school system in order to enroll them into newly-founded "segregation academies".[22] After the 1968 Supreme Court case Green v. County School Board of New Kent County hastened the desegregation of public schools, private school attendance in the state of Mississippi soared from 23,181 students attending private school in 1968 to 63,242 students in 1970.[23] These two practices, collectively termed white flight, led to a decrease in white populations in urban public schools so much that between 1968 and 1978 schools in the South were more segregated than they were pre-Brown.[24]

Impact on Hispanic populations[edit]

The implementation of school integration policies did not just affect black and white students; in recent years, scholars have noted how the integration of public schools significantly affected Hispanic populations in the south and southwest. Historically, Hispanic-Americans were legally considered white. A group of Mexican-Americans in Corpus Christi, Texas challenged this classification, as it resulted in discrimination and ineffective school integration policies. In Cisneros v. Corpus Christi Independent School District (1970), the Federal District Court decreed that Hispanic-Americans should be classified as an ethnic minority group, and that the integration of Corpus Christi schools should reflect that.[25] In 2005, historian Guadalupe San Miguel authored Brown Not White, an in-depth study of how Hispanic populations were used by school districts to circumvent truly integrating their schools. It detailed that when school districts officially categorized Hispanic students as ethnically white, a predominately African-American school and a predominately Hispanic school could be combined and successfully pass the integration standards laid out by the U.S. government, leaving white schools unaffected. San Miguel describes how the Houston Independent School District used this loophole to keep predominately white schools unchanged, at the disadvantage of Hispanic students.[26]

In the early 1970s, Houstonians boycotted this practice: for three weeks, thousands of Hispanic students stopped attending their local public schools in protest of the racist integration laws.[27] In response to this boycott, in September 1972 the HISD school board - following the precedent in Cisneros v. Corpus Christi Independent School District - ruled that Hispanic students should be an official ethnic minority, effectively ending the loophole that prevented the integration of white schools.[28]

Impact on modern schools[edit]

Educational implications[edit]

A National Assessment of Educational Progress study showing the gap between reading test scores of white and African-American students

For students who remained in public schools, de facto segregation remained a reality due to segregated lunch tables and segregated extracurricular programs.[29] Today, the pedagogical practice of tracking in schools also leads to de facto segregation within some public schools as racial and ethic minorities are disproportionately overrepresented in lower track classes and white students are disproportionately overrepresented in AP and college prep classes.[30][31]

The growing emphasis on standardized tests as measures of achievement in schools is a part of the dialogue surrounding the relationship between race and education in the United States. Many studies have been done surrounding the achievement gap, or the gap in test scores between white students and students of color.[32][33][34] Scholar Harold Berlak notes that the gap hovers around 10 percent—with white students on average performing 10 percent higher on standardized tests than students of color.[35] In his study on standardized tests, historian Wayne Au notes the connection between the long history of institutionalized racism in the United States and the achievement gap, and he makes the point that the lower test scores of students of color is one of the many long-term effects of segregated schools.[36]

Social implications[edit]

It has been proven that integrated classrooms are beneficial for all students.[citation needed] In 2003, the Supreme Court openly recognized the importance of diversity in education, where they noted that integrated classrooms prepare students to become citizens and leaders in a diverse country.[37] Psychologists have studied the social and developmental benefits of integrated schools. In a study by Killen, Crystal, and Ruck, researchers discovered that students in integrated schools demonstrate more tolerance and inclusionary behaviors compared to those who have less contact with students from other racial backgrounds.[38]

Related court cases[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ a b "Teaching Tolerance | Brown v. Board: Timeline of School Integration in the U.S." Southern Poverty Law Center. Spring 2004. Retrieved 13 October 2016. 
  3. ^ a b Cottrol, p. 29.
  4. ^ Fairclough, p. 248.
  5. ^ Cottrol, pg. 122.
  6. ^ a b Cottrol, pg. 123.
  7. ^ "National Affairs: REPORT CARD". Time. 1955-09-19. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 2017-09-26. 
  8. ^ Jones, pp. 46-57.
  9. ^ "Integration: 1954 to 1963". The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 2012. Retrieved 13 October 2016. 
  10. ^ Lassiter, p. 1
  11. ^ Ogletree and Eaton, p. 280
  12. ^ Ogletree and Eaton, p. 281
  13. ^ a b c Cottrol, p. 185.
  14. ^ a b Cottrol, p. 186.
  15. ^ Romano, p. xiv.
  16. ^ Cottrol, p. 184.
  17. ^ Ogletree and Eaten, p. 279
  18. ^ Appleby, David. "Hoxie - The First Stand". Retrieved 4 January 2018. 
  19. ^ Clotfelter, p. 96.
  20. ^ Strauss, p. 94.
  21. ^ a b Kellar, p. 166.
  22. ^ Clotfelter, p. 101.
  23. ^ Clotfelter, p. 109.
  24. ^ Clotfelter, pp. 8-9, 56.
  25. ^ Selinas, p. 929
  26. ^ San Miguel, p. 81
  27. ^ San Miguel, p. 117.
  28. ^ San Miguel, p. 185
  29. ^ Clotfelter, pg. 127.
  30. ^ Tyson, pg. 169, 173.
  31. ^ Becker and Luthar, p. 198.
  32. ^ Berlak, p. 63.
  33. ^ Ferguson, p. 462.
  34. ^ Jencks and Phillips, p. 1.
  35. ^ Berlak, p. 68.
  36. ^ Au, p. 35.
  37. ^ Frankenberg, p. 10.
  38. ^ Frankenberg, p. 17.


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