De facto segregation in the North: Introductory Essay

by Judith Rosenbaum, Jewish Women's Archive

Civil Rights and the Courts

In the first half of the 20th century, civil rights were pursued primarily through the court system, as activists, organizations like the NAACP, and lawyers worked to overturn laws that permitted segregation and exclusion based on race. One of the greatest victories was the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which overturned the precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that had legalized the doctrine of "separate but equal." "Separate but equal" provided the legal justification for segregation of facilities and services, including the school system. In practice, segregation of the school system in most communities was anything but equal, with the majority of resources going to white schools, which left African American students with access only to an inferior educational system. Moreover, segregation was psychologically harmful to students, cultivating a sense of inferiority in African American children and hampering their educational development.

In Brown v. Board, the Supreme Court unanimously declared segregated schools "inherently unequal" and unconstitutional, but did not order a clear timetable for the implementation of integration. Because some prominent southern politicians did not accept the Brown decision and blocked desegregation, the implementation of Brown led to some of the most vicious and protracted fights in the Civil Rights Movement. Little Rock, Arkansas was the site of the most famous resistance to desegregation, when Governor Orval Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to block nine black students from entering Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Unable to enter the school, the Little Rock Nine (as they were called) were harassed by a mob and threatened with lynching. The crisis attracted the attention of the nation, as well as of President Eisenhower, who met with the Governor and warned him not to interfere with the implementation of the Brown ruling. Ultimately, Eisenhower ordered the Army to Little Rock and federalized the Arkansas National Guard to remove them from Governor Faubus's control. By the end of September, the Little Rock Nine were able to enter the school with Army escort, though they suffered verbal and physical abuse from their fellow classmates throughout the tense school year. The following year (1958-59), all of Little Rock's high schools were shut to prevent further desegregation. (Many white students attended private schools that year, whereas most African American students, who did not have that option, lost a year of schooling.)

Segregation in the North

Though segregation was not the law in the northern states, neither were most school systems well integrated. Because school assignment was usually linked to neighborhood, the existence of residential segregation led to de facto segregation of the school system, (meaning they were segregated in reality, but not by law or de jure). Because school budgets were often linked to property taxes, poor neighborhoods tended to have poorer schools with inferior facilities. And the schools with a large non-white population tended to be staffed by inexperienced teachers who did not have seniority to choose a school district with more money and better resources. De facto segregation remained (and, in some places, remains) a common issue in the North, even many years after de jure segregation was outlawed in the South. Since there were no laws involved, de facto segregation was harder to combat, and in some ways more insidious, than de jure segregation.

De facto segregation of schools in the North could be a complicated issue for Jews. Though the majority of northern Jews supported civil rights, they also placed a great deal of emphasis on education and wanted their children to attend the best schools. Therefore, while they believed in integration in theory, Jews sometimes were unwilling to sacrifice their own children's education to that ideal. In addition, many of the white teachers and administrators in urban school systems like New York's were Jewish, so conflicts between the school faculty/administration and students/parents – as in the case of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school crisis in 1968 (see Unit 3 lesson 2) – often pitted Jews against African Americans.

Of course, this was not always the case, as illustrated by Skipwith v. New York City Board of Education – a court case that was decided by a prominent Jewish judge in favor of the black plaintiffs, holding the Board of Education responsible for de facto segregation of the schools.

Skipwith v. New York City Board of Education

In 1958 the Skipwith family, which lived in New York City, boycotted their local public school because they felt their daughter was getting an inferior education. This school, like their neighborhood, was mostly black, and the teachers who worked at the school mostly were relatively inexperienced young, white teachers. Since the Skipwiths were not allowed to enroll their daughter in a school in a different neighborhood, the Skipwiths chose not to send their daughter to school at all. As a result, the New York City Board of Education charged the family with neglect. (Other black families in their neighborhood joined them in their boycott.)

The case, Skipwith v. New York City Board of Education, dealt with de facto segregation of the schools and the related issue of residential segregation. The case came before Judge Justine Wise Polier on the Family Court. Her handling of this case helped bring attention to the issue of de facto segregation. Her decision, presented on December 15, 1958, indicated that while the Board of Education was not responsible for de facto segregation, it was at fault for not providing qualified teachers to schools with fewer white students. (The School Board's policy up to this point was to allow teachers to choose their schools and few qualified, experienced teachers chose to work at non-white majority public schools.) Judge Polier went on to say that until the Board of Education rectified the situation, parents could not be punished for boycotting the schools. Each child had the right to a quality education.

Justine Wise Polier (1903-1987)

Justine Wise Polier was born in 1903 to Rabbi Stephen Wise and Louise Waterman Wise. Her father, a founder of the American Jewish Congress, was a leading advocate of an Israeli state, one of the earliest supporters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a pro-labor activist. Her mother was a painter, an ardent Zionist, and founder of a Jewish foster care and adoption agency.

As she came of age, Polier grew into the social activism modeled by her parents. While in college, she lived in a settlement house and taught English to immigrants. In her last year in college, she did research on women's workplace injuries and the inadequacy of their workmen's compensation. After college, Polier wanted to experience first-hand the lives of women laborers. Using her mother's maiden name (because her father's pro-labor stance was well known) she got a job in a textile factory, but anti-union spies discovered her identity and she was quickly blacklisted from the factory.

Polier then enrolled in Yale Law School. When a strike broke out at her former workplace, she commuted from Yale to participate in it, giving fiery speeches against the mill's "feudal tyranny" and terrible conditions and helping workers win the right to unionize.

After she graduated from law school, Polier worked for the Workman's Compensation Division in New York, helping to eliminate system-wide corruption and draft new laws. In 1935, she became the first woman judge in New York State, when was appointed to the Domestic Relations Court, where she spent the next thirty-eight years. Polier's most famous and influential decision was the 1958 Skipwith case.

Polier regularly used her position to fight for the poor and disempowered. She tried to implement juvenile justice law as treatment, not punishment, making her court the center of a community network that encompassed psychiatric services, economic aid, teachers, placement agencies, and families. She also fought religious and racial discrimination. At the time, New York relied for social services on private religious agencies, which often denied treatment and foster care to non-white children. No private services at all existed for black Protestant boys. Polier was so appalled that in 1936 she brought twenty cases to the mayor, who sent her to the Episcopalian Mission Society, which agreed to open the Wiltwyck School for boys.

Despite the changes brought by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, Polier spent her final years as a judge still battling institutional racism. When Polier's attempts to find foster care for Shirley Wilder, an African American girl, were rejected by every agency, she helped initiate a class action suit. Wilder v. Sugarman, begun in 1974, charged public and private foster care agencies with unconstitutionally discriminating on the basis of religion and race. The controversial case spanned more than two decades.

Polier also served as vice-president of the American Jewish Congress and president of its women's division. Together with her husband Shad Polier, she spoke out about the importance of the Jewish community's commitment to civil rights.

Much of Polier's motivation came from her Jewish heritage. For her, to be a Jew meant an unwavering commitment to uphold the rights of all people and a moral obligation to speak out against injustice. She was deeply moved by the Jewish commitment to justice (often defined as a "prophetic tradition" because the biblical prophets were known for condemning rote religious behavior and corruption and for challenging their communities to live justly) and she spoke of this "vital heritage" as the most important guiding force in her life. Polier criticized American Jews for losing themselves in materialism and abandoning their responsibility to justice for "all human beings."


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "De facto segregation in the North: Introductory Essay." (Viewed on February 29, 2024) <>.