Education was not always the universally accepted right that it is today in the United States. Although some communities did make education a priority, the United States was primarily an agricultural society until the twentieth century. Children might learn to work the land or be apprenticed to a tradesman after having only a few years of formal schooling. Many children had no formal education. Slave children had only as much education as their masters allowed or tolerated; most slave owners did not encourage their slaves even to learn to learn to read or write.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified shortly after the end of the Civil War prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. But it did not specifically grant citizenship to freed slaves, and Southern states took advantage of this omission. Congress redressed the balance with the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868. The amendment stated that all citizens, whether by birth or by naturalization, were guaranteed equal protection under the law, and called for Federal intervention if states failed to comply. Former Confederate states that wished to rejoin the United States were required to sign the Fourteenth Amendment before being readmitted.
What the Fourteenth Amendment did not do was guarantee equal rights. Southern states used the "separate but equal" argument, which allowed them to keep blacks and whites separate as long as they did not deprive them of basic legal rights. Eventually, this arrangement led to a series of discouraging developments that relegated blacks in the South to inferior status.
One of the factors affected by while Southern unwillingness to recognize blacks as equals was public transportation. In 1890 the General Assembly of Louisiana passed a law requiring railroads to provide separate cars for whites and blacks, with the stipulation that the separate cars be of equal quality and comfort.
The law was immediately attacked by civil rights groups, and to force the question of whether it was constitutional, a black man, Adolph Plessy, deliberately broke it by taking a seat in a whites-only car. The law was found constitutional by regional and state courts and went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled seven to one against Plessy and thus established as constitutional the concept of "separate but equal." This concept was a springboard for what was called the "Jim Crow" system. Named for a character in a black minstrel show, the Jim Crow laws made segregation not merely acceptable but mandatory. Over the next several decades, "separate but equal" became pervasive, particularly in the South. Although there were some civil rights gains for blacks in the ensuing years, a definitive victory against Jim Crow did not come until 1954.
"Separate but equal" may have seemed unconscionable to many, but it was the law in many states. In the 1950s 17 states and the District of Columbia had laws prohibiting school desegregation. It was clear to most educators, parents, and children that there could be no such thing as a separate but equal education. Several cases appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality of segregated schools, and the Court's unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education on May 17, 1954 turned the doctrine of school segregation on its head. "Separate educational facilities," said the Court, "are inherently unequal."
Although the Brown decision marked the beginning of the end for sanctioned segregation in the schools, segregation's end did not come immediately. In fact, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, several Souther governors, notably Orval Faubus of Arkansas, Ross Barnett of Mississippi, and George Wallace of Alabama, vigorously defended segregation. Not until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was desegregation dealt a definitive blow throughout the United States.