Brown v. Board of Education

Federal Records Relating to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), Reference Information Paper 112, comp. by Walter B. Hill, Jr. and Trichita M. Chestnut (2004), 34 pp.

Summary: “Describes records that relate to or assist in the understanding of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that prohibited segregation in public schools.” Dates of records: 1896–1977.

I was fortunate to have worked on several projects with the late Walter Hill, Jr. As an archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC, he was a passionate champion in the preservation and promotion of federal records related to African Americans. His 2004 guide to records pertaining to the Brown v. Board of Education decision was one of his most important accomplishments. 

The Supreme Court’s Brown decision was one the most consequential in our nation’s history. In spite of the post-Civil War laws and constitutional amendments guaranteeing racial equality, the nation, particularly, the Southern states, enforced discrimination and segregation through harsh local restrictions and customs. Those practices perpetuated an unequal social system in job opportunity, pay scales, housing, and education. The conditions for black tenant farmers in the Jim Crow-era South essentially constituted servitude through harsh working conditions and inescapable indebtedness to landowners. And the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson protected those separate social structures, deciding as Hill writes, that “state-sanctioned segregation” did not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Legal challenges over following the decades in several states steadily laid the groundwork that culminated in the 1954 Brown case to the Supreme Court. The Brown case was far-reaching because it stated that separate facilities were inherently unequal, and “that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” The decision left no doubt about the need to guarantee equality in all areas of national life, and spurred the modern civil rights movement.

Hill’s guide to federal records is admittedly not comprehensive, but it “identifies most of the records in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) that relate directly or indirectly to the Brown decision.” It is divided by time period: records prior to the Brown decision, 1896–1953; records relating directly to the 1954 decision; and records relating to enforcement of the decision, 1955–1977. The descriptions of records are then arranged by where they were generated: the judicial branch, executive agencies, or the Office of the President. The records are scattered throughout NARA’s nationwide system of regional archives and Presidential libraries. For example, a listing for the National Archives at San Francisco summarizes the case of  Henry Wong Him v. Mary E. Callahan (U.S. District Court for the Ninth Circuit), an early case in which the plaintiff’s suit for allowing Chinese students to attend white schools was denied. 

The second section then identifies lower court records for the five cases that were joined into the case of Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (347 U.S. 483). The guide lists where those separate district court case files are held: 

National Archives at Atlanta: Harry Briggs, Jr., et al. v. R. W. Elliott et al.

National Archives at Kansas City: Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas

National Archives at Philadelphia: Dorothy Davis et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, VA, et al.

National Archives Building, Washington, DC: Appellate Case Files, Francis Gebhardt et al. v. Belton et al. on certiorari to the Supreme Court of Delaware (two joined cases)

For executive agencies, the guide lists, among other items, case files from the Department of Justice.

For post-1954 records, the guide reveals a great diversity of records related to the civil rights movement and attempts to enforce the Brown decision. For example, the National Archives at Atlanta has the case file for United States of America v. Biloxi Municipal Separate School District et al. (1963). In the case, the United States government sought to end segregation and discrimination in facilities at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. We also see a listing for Kinney Kinmon Lau et al. v. Alan H. Nichols, President et al. (National Archives at San Francisco), an important decision in bilingual education that was overruled by the Supreme Court, which, the guide states, held that “the placement of non-English-speaking students in mainstream classrooms [without English-language instruction] was a violation of their civil rights.”

There are also listings records in the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson Libraries. At the Eisenhower Library, for example, are the papers of William P. Rogers, 1953–1961, which contain documentation on the Little Rock school crisis, and executive office correspondence with city and school officials.

An appendix provides a full listing of all court cases discussed in the guide. The guide is an important starting point for research into the long legal campaign for civil rights, not only for African Americans, and the role of government and the courts. It demonstrates the great extent of federal records on these issues, how they are distributed in many NARA locations, and that the researcher must look not only into court records but into those of the executive branch agencies as well.


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