Primary Sources & Lesson Plans
Although racism has been a pervasive theme of American history, the form it assumed has varied by both time and place. In the South, the Jim Crow laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries allowed for legalized segregation even after the end of slavery. These laws were supported by the U.S. Supreme Court in landmark cases such as Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 decision that set the precedent for the doctrine of separate but equal facilities. Racial discrimination in the North took a more subtle yet equally effective path. The mere fact that blacks and whites did not live in the same neighborhoods created de facto segregation, which had many adverse effects on the black community, particularly in the arena of locally based public education.
By the 1950s, the civil rights movement had made some progress. In 1954, the Supreme Court reversed the Plessy decision and ended legal segregation with the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Yet discrimination persisted. Judge Polier used the 1958 Skipwith Case, discussed in this article, to hold the New York City Board of Education responsible for racial discrimination. Although Judge Polier recognized that the school board was not responsible for residential segregation, she charged that it had discriminated by failing to assign enough fully qualified teachers to schools in predominantly black neighborhoods.
For more information on the Skipwith case and the life of Judge Polier, go to JWAs Women of Valor exhibit.
1. What is the difference between law and custom? How can both be very powerful?
2. What makes something fair?
3. What are the criteria for a good school? Is it possible for two schools to fulfill these criteria differently and still provide education of equal quality?
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