Equal Protection under the Law: The Challenges of Separate but Equal Context:

1. What challenges (difficulties) did the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Plessy v. Ferguson case present for lawyers trying to desegregate public schools? What opportunities did the case present for those trying to desegregate public schools? Please be sure to provide specific examples from the case itself.

2. Charles Houston and his team collected many different forms of information and evidence – some of which is included here. Look carefully at each piece of information and evidence (statistics, photos, 14th Amendment, etc.) and think about what they mean given the content of the Plessy decision and the notion of “separate but equal.”

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a. How does the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution help, if at all, in efforts to desegregate African American schools (and other aspects of life) under the Plessy decision?

b. What do Houston’s “field study” notes from South Carolina show you?

c. What do the photos taken in South Carolina communicate to you?

d. What does the case and decision of Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada tell you about the expansion of legal protections for Black Americans and race-based legal restrictions placed upon Missouri and other states? (Please remember that this case did not overturn Plessy v. Ferguson, but it did add to the meaning and enforcement of the Plessy decision).

3. Charles Houston and his legal team used many different strategies to weaken and eventually destroy the legality of “separate but equal” in public education. Discuss three of the strategies that were used to accomplish that task and why those strategies stand out to you as being particularly important and effective. Remember that you can use portions of your writing from reading assignment 2 (“The Need for Negro Lawyers” by Charles Houston) and your reasoning in question 2 above as part of your response.


1. 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (page 3)

2. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896 U.S. Supreme Court Case) (page 4)

3. Field Study in South Carolina (1930), by Charles H. Houston (page 25)

4. Photos of South Carolina Schools in the 1930s (page 26)

5. Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938 U.S. Supreme Court Case) (page 30)

As we will see in this history problem, the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) enabled racial segregation (separation) to exist legally throughout the United States. This meant that based upon race alone, laws could be made and enforced that separated “whites” from “non-whites” on train cars, in schools, hospitals, etc. Separateness raised significant issues and challenges for African Americans such as separate schools for black and white students and separate pay for school teachers based upon whether they were white or black. The separation continued to make and preserve unequal conditions between persons who were classified as “white” and those who were “non-white.” The races were not treated equally within the system of racial segregation in the United States.

The realities of unequal conditions within racial segregation created a need for African American lawyers to carefully analyze and strategically respond to the ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson and its negative impact on Black communities and schools. In 1936, Charles H. Houston, a Harvard-educated lawyer who served as legal counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), went to South Carolina and other southern states with a small team of other black lawyers to collect evidence that proved that segregation was producing unequal conditions between white and non-white citizens. He used this information on segregation in southern communities to help improve conditions for African Americans by demonstrating in different court cases that the requirement of “separate but equal” in the Plessy v. Ferguson case was not being enforced in different states (which meant that federal law under the Plessy decision was not being obeyed by the states). Much of what Houston collected pertained to segregated education and the systems surrounding such education.

Included in this History Problem are some of the key pieces of evidence gathered by Charles H. Houston and his colleagues as they travelled through South Carolina in the 1930s documenting how racial segregation affected black communities. Also included are some of the major legal tools that they used or created to develop a legal response to Plessy v. Ferguson and to eventually eliminate racially segregated schools in South Carolina and in other parts of the United States.

The questions on the next page are intended to take you through some of the basic steps that the lawyers went through in their journey to a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court victory in the Brown v. Board of Education case (1954) which overturned legalized racial segregation in U.S. public schools.

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