Ethel Brown was born with a heart condition. But, because she was Black, she had no choice but to travel 20 miles each day to attend Howard High School, the only public high school in the state of Delaware that admitted Black students in 1950. Her mother, concerned about Ethel’s ability to make the trip, petitioned the school board to allow Ethel to attend the nearby Claymont High School, which was reserved for white students. Her request was denied. Despite Ethel’s status as a young girl with a severe medical condition, Ethel was treated as unworthy of any protection simply because of her race. Fed up, Mrs. Brown joined a group of Black parents bringing a lawsuit, Belton v. Gebhart, in one of the five cases that eventually became Brown v. Board of Education — the landmark Supreme Court case litigated by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. (LDF) that ended segregation by law in American public schools.
Today, Ethel’s story remains largely unknown, as does the identity of many Black girls who were vastly overrepresented as plaintiffs in the courts and as the leaders behind school desegregation organizing efforts. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, for example, sixteen-year-old Barbara Johns, in defiance of her principal, led a walkout of her fellow students at Moton High School, her segregated high school, to protest the inferior facilities and subpar educational materials given to Black students — an act that was the catalyst behind Davis v. Prince Edward County School Board, another companion case to Brown. Indeed, in the underlying case that originated in Kansas and provided the name most people know, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, all but one of the plaintiffs were women.
In her recent book, A Girl Stands at the Door, historian Rachel Devlin explores why so many Black women and girls were the voices behind the school desegregation movement:
Despite the of myriad challenges they faced, Black women and girls bravely took action to effect change in the American educational system – and continue to do so today.
Unfortunately, racial bias in schools did not end with Brown v. Board. COVID-19 has exposed fundamental educational inequities in public education that still have not been fully addressed over 66 years after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board. Black students today are six times more likely than white students to attend a high-poverty school, and nearly 75% of Black K-12 students attend racially segregated schools. Like high-poverty schools, racially-segregated schools are likely to have high levels of teacher turnover, inadequate facilities, and fewer classroom resources. Educators are already predicting that the existing academic achievement gap will become more entrenched as distance learning continues, due to the digital divide and other existing economic and educational disparities.
Yet, even in the face of pervasive racial bias, the unrelenting commitment of many young Black women to speak out about injustice in their schools continues. In a 2018 study by published by LDF, for example, Black girls in Baltimore city schools reported that they are routinely told to be polite and quiet and to not “make a big deal out of things” at school. Nonetheless, these young women expressed a duty to advocate for justice when they believe conditions at school are unfair. They expressed concern not only with instances of individual unfair treatment, but systematic inequity, including the quality of education, disparities in discipline, police brutality, and a lack of financial investment in their schools. These girls felt it was unjust that their schools were plagued with problems that did not exist in other whiter, more affluent schools—problems about which they were expected not to complain. In some case, these girls were punished for being too outspoken. Indeed, national studies have shown that, compared to their white peers, Black girls are more likely to be harshly punished, and adult educators are more likely to perceive Black girls as needing less protection, nurturing, and support — and more in need of discipline for violating social norms, especially when it comes to subjective offenses in which Black girls are perceived as challenging authority.
We are all indebted to the young Black women who were on the frontlines of the fight to end the system of apartheid and white supremacy that once defined American schools. These girls created the records that led to the end of de jure segregation in the lawsuits they joined, and put their bodies on the line despite the social isolation and physical violence that often followed. Now, more than ever, student activism matters as our country decides how to respond to a public health pandemic and the systemic inequities that make Black and Brown communities even more vulnerable. Recognizing the historical legacy of the Black girl heroes who have largely been relegated to the footnotes of American history can help us to better understand Black girls who challenge the status quo today, and help us to better protect and support them as students and as future leaders.
Learn more about the history of the landmark case, key players, and how Brown vs. Board shaped our nation.