5 Explosive U.S. Supreme Court Cases That Defined Race in America

5 Explosive U.S. Supreme Court Cases That Defined Race in America

Donna Patricia Ward - April 1, 2017

Inequality between races has been a central issue for the United States for its entire history. When the U.S. Constitution was ratified, it protected slavery, permitted participation in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and declared that slaves of African descent could be counted as 3/5 of a person. Over time, changes have been made to the U.S. Constitution that have outlawed slavery, implemented universal suffrage for all citizens without bias of gender or race, and guaranteed citizens equal protection under the law. The judicial branch is responsible for interpreting and implementing rulings on how these constitutional changes can be applied. This is done when citizens file lawsuits.

Justices of the United States Supreme Court have heard and ruled on many cases that have dealt with race—questions such as who has the right to use the courts, where can black and white people live, what public schools can a person attend, and how can education be equal for everyone? For the courts, rulings from earlier cases set a precedent for current and future rulings. Sometimes the Court even states when an earlier Court’s ruling was just flat out wrong or misguided. The five cases below were decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and dealt with how the Court interpreted race and who has rights under the law.

5 Explosive U.S. Supreme Court Cases That Defined Race in America
Dred Scott. Wikipedia

Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford – 1857

Dred Scott and his wife Harriet Scott were slaves living in St. Louis, Missouri in 1846. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had outlawed slavery in the territory north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River, but fugitive slaves could be caught in the territory and returned to their owners. States that were carved out of this territory were Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and eastern Minnesota. For the Scotts, they had lived in the free territory that would eventually become Minnesota.

President Thomas Jefferson received an offer from Napoleon Bonaparte to purchase the French territory west of the Mississippi River. Bonaparte had just endured a terrorizing and bloody revolution that created the independent island state of Haiti. Quick to rid himself of France’s North American holdings, Bonaparte made an offer that Jefferson could not refuse. In 1804, the territory of the United States had doubled.

Louisiana was the first state carved out of the Louisiana Purchase, joining the Union in 1812. As early as 1818, the Missouri Territory petitioned to become a state. A small group of New England abolitionists were concerned over the spread of slavery. Reaching a compromise, Missouri entered into the union as a slave state, while Maine entered the union as a free state. The idea was to ensure equal congressional power between slave-holding states and non-slave holding states.

Courts were established in Missouri once it entered into the Union. For several decades, slaves had used the courts to sue their owners for things promised by their owners such as wages, livestock, and freedom. When Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued for their freedom, it was not an unprecedented act.

An army officer owned Dred Scott and his family. When he was transferred to an outpost in the Northwest Territory, he brought his slaves with him. The 1787 ordinance outlawed slavery, but the Scotts lived on a federal fort and remained in servitude. When the army officer moved to St. Louis, he again brought his slaves with him. Because the Scotts had lived in free territory, they believed that legally made them free. In 1846, they filed for their freedom. Twelve white jurors in a St. Louis court ruled that because the Scotts’ residence was in a free state, that made them free. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the January 1850 lower court’s ruling in 1852 and the Scotts again were enslaved.

Since the Scotts first sued for their freedom, the United States had annexed Texas and won territory from Mexico at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. The California Republic had organized and petitioned for statehood, entering the Union in 1850. New territory opened up west of the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. At question was where would slavery expand and how would Congress retain its equilibrium between slave states and free states.

Senators Henry Clay, from Kentucky, and Stephen Douglas, from Illinois, proposed a compromise. The 1850 compromise allowed new western territories to use the idea of popular sovereignty to allow settlers to decide if slavery could legally exist within their borders, and it enacted the Fugitive Slave Law, which made it legal for slaveholders to hire agents to hunt down fugitive slaves that had escaped to free states and territories.

Lawyers for Dred Scott continued to appeal the Missouri Supreme Court decision. The case was argued in the United States Supreme Court and finally, in 1857 a 7-2 decision was reached. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney stated that, black men, regardless of their free or slave status, were not people. As such, they had no protections under the US Constitution and they had no right to even use the courts to sue for their freedom or anything else. Moreover, Congress had no legal right to control slavery in federal territories, which nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

The legal precedent set by the Taney court meant that black people, regardless if they were free or enslaved, had no protections under the law. Even with the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, that provided all citizens with equal protection under the law, it would be another 100 years before precedent was set that defined who was a citizen of the United States. The Taney decision was a contributing factor to both the onset of the American Civil War and the creation of the post-war Jim Crow Era.

Scott and his family were legally declared free, or manumitted, on May 26, 1857. Following the onset of tuberculosis, Scott died in St. Louis a free man on September 17, 1858. Dred Scott was interred in Wesleyan Cemetery. When the cemetery closed nine years later, Scott was placed in an unmarked plot in the Catholic-owned Calvary Cemetery. His gravesite was rediscovered in 1957 and a marker placed to commemorate the centennial of the case. People continue to visit his grave where they honor him by placing Lincoln pennies on his marker for good luck.

5 Explosive U.S. Supreme Court Cases That Defined Race in America
Bus station circa 1940 in Durham, North Carolina. Public Domain

Homer Plessy v. John H. Ferguson – 1896

In the years leading up to the American Civil War, pro-slavery factions justified the use of a slave labor force. To ensure equal legislative power between slave states and non-slave states, Congress stated that slaves were 3/5 of a person. Southern states with large slave populations were permitted to count their slaves as 3/5 of a person, thus increasing a state’s population, which in turn increased the number of state representatives in Congress.

As the abolition movement gained support, the ideology of race began to play a more important role in determining who should be enslaved. Applying the French idea of purity of blood meant that anyone with one drop of African blood in them could be enslaved. For Americans the mixed-race babies that resulted from the forced sexual encounters between white masters and black slave women would be slaves even though they were half white. After the American Civil War ended, the one-drop rule had more of an impact on social order and helped solidify Jim Crow.

Mixed-race children were not new in the South. Mary Chestnut noted in her diary that plantation wives were constantly reminded of the liberty their husbands took with their slaves by the mixed-race slave children working in their homes. Some benevolent masters sent their racially mixed children to schools in the North like Wilberforce University in Ohio. Most were sold to neighboring plantations, or worse, at the suggestion of plantation mistresses.

As the lines between white and black blurred after the American Civil War, new tactics had to be used. Before a former Confederate state could be re-admitted to the Union, they had to draft a new state constitution and obtain the approval of Congress. Additionally, the southern states had to ratify the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. The former rebellious southern states had new state constitutions that reflected the ideals of the United States Constitution. This lasted until the 1890s, when Southern Democrats were permitted back in Congress.

In the aftermath of Reconstruction, southern states had been working on ways to separate the races. Municipal and state laws restricted the mixing of the races in public accommodations such as train stations, restrooms, and schools. When trains entered into southern states, the private companies forced black passengers, no matter their ticket, into the segregated train cars. Interstate train operators and owners did not like adding extra train cars at their own cost to accommodate the laws of southern states. For black passengers, refusing to move could result in violence and expulsion from the train in hostile and often Ku Klux Klan controlled territory.

Homer Plessy was a Creole whose family spoke French and had lived in New Orleans for generations. A small citizens’ community of Creoles, blacks, and whites devised a plan in September 1891 to challenge the separate accommodation laws. They recruited a white lawyer, Albion Winegar Tourgée, who continually advocated for freedman rights and education. To question the arbitrary nature of how southern officials determined who was white and who was black, he suggested that a mixed-race person break the law. Plessy would be the offender and he was arrested in June 1892 for riding in the white car on an interstate train.

Plessy was fined $25 for failing to move to the segregated rail car. He refused and his lawyer appealed to the Supreme Court of Louisiana. The state’s supreme court upheld the lower court’s ruling. Undaunted, Plessy’s case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1896. Standing in front of the US Supreme Court, Tourgée argued that the Thirteenth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed the same rights to all citizens regardless of race.

In a 7-1 decision, the US Supreme Court stated that the Louisiana law did not infringe upon the rights of Plessy as outlined in the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court stated that Louisiana’s law merely kept the races segregated as a matter of public policy, making public accommodations separate but equal. The Plessy decision allowed southern states to enact separate but equal laws, which ushered in the era of Jim Crow. Over the next several decades, numerous lawsuits were filed challenging the legality of the enforcement of Jim Crow laws in the South and de facto segregation in the North and West.

5 Explosive U.S. Supreme Court Cases That Defined Race in America
The Shelley home at 4600 Labadie Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri. United States National Park Service

Shelly vs. Kraemer – 1948

As the nineteenth century moved into the twentieth century, the movement of African Americans was strictly controlled. In the South, states had passed separate but equal laws. The Jim Crow laws, as they were called, had been upheld in the courts and clearly delineated the racial divide between black and white, even if they did not explicitly state who was white and who was black. The North and West were a different matter.

The Segregationist movement was in full swing during the first two decades of the twentieth century. President Woodrow Wilson screened the pro-Klan movie, Birth of a Nation, in the White House. African Americans protested the movie and led boycotts against the theaters that showed it. The 50th anniversary of the Civil War was approaching and both sides erected ornate memorials to their Confederate and Union dead. Eastern European immigrants continued to flood into northern cities while millions of whites and blacks migrated to the North to work in factories preparing arms, ammunition, and vehicles for war breaking out in Europe. In cities, African Americans and ethnic whites began fighting for the same jobs and turf.

As industrialization began to infiltrate cities, housing for workers became scarce. For cities like Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and Baltimore, immigrants fought southern migrants for dilapidated and over-used housing. When new tracts of homes were built, people that could move did so quickly. Residents of these new neighborhoods formed neighborhood improvement organizations. The ultimate goal of these organizations was to ensure that residents were of the same ethnicity.

Members of the improvement organizations would go house to house demanding that homeowners agree to place a racially restrictive covenant on their property. These covenants would state that the current homeowner has agreed to sell their home only to someone of their same race thus ensuring that an ethnically Italian or Polish working-class neighborhood would remain intact when homes sold. If a homeowner in an Italian-American neighborhood sold their property to an African American, for example, the neighborhood improvement organization would sue to have the new homeowner evicted from the property they had just purchased.

The practice of enforcing racially restrictive covenants fell to the local court system and the sheriff’s office. Neighborhood organizations would file a lawsuit stating that the new homeowner was in violation of a restrictive covenant registered with the city’s Register of Deeds office. The court would rule in favor of the neighborhood organization and then send the sheriff’s deputies to serve the eviction papers to the new homeowner. To prevent personal belongings from being thrown into the street, evicted homeowners would quickly pack up their belongings and find a new place to live. Any money that they paid for the purchase of the home was lost.

The Ville was a middle-class African-American neighborhood on the west side of St. Louis. Surrounding the Ville were two-family and four-family flats that housed both white and black workers. The oldest home on Labadie Avenue dated to 1896 and had always housed African American families. In 1945, JD Shelley and his wife, Mary, purchased the home at 4600 Labadie Avenue, which was built in 1906, using a straw party. As the Shelleys were black, it was difficult to purchase property. To circumvent this, white couples would purchase homes on behalf of black couples. When the sales were finalized, the white couples would have the deed transferred to the black couple. This practice began in earnest after the Second World War, when housing in industrialized cities was scarce.

The Shelleys’ neighbor at 4609 Labadie Avenue, Louis D. Kraemer, on behalf of the Marcus Avenue Improvement Association, filed a lawsuit claiming that the Shelleys were in violation of the racially restrictive covenant placed on the home in 1911. The covenant stated that no negro or anyone of the Mongolian race could occupy the home for fifty years. The St. Louis court sided with the Shelleys, and they were permitted to stay in their home. Upon appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1947, the Kraemers were victorious. George L. Vaughn, the Shelley’s lawyer, appealed to the US Supreme Court.

Companion cases that also contested the legality of racially restrictive covenants joined the Shelley v. Kraemer case. McGhee v Sipes originated in Detroit, and Hurd v. Hodge and Urciolo v. Hodge originated from Washington, DC. Numerous entities, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the US Solicitor General, submitted an amicus curia, friend of the court, brief in the hopes of influencing the Court’s decision.

On May 3, 1948, the US Supreme Court announced their decision in favor of the defendants. As argued by the lawyers, the US Supreme Court stated that enforcing racially restrictive covenants violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court did not state that racially restrictive covenants were illegal; they just stated that enforcing them through the courts could no longer happen. The Shelley v. Kraemer case was a major civil rights victory. It continued to set a precedent that the Fourteenth Amendment protected all citizens of the United States no matter their race.

5 Explosive U.S. Supreme Court Cases That Defined Race in America
Colored School in South Carolina, circa 1870-1885. Public Domain

Brown v. Board of Education – 1954

Public education for all children was not realized until the twentieth century. School districts across the country routinely underfunded schools for African Americans. Jim Crow laws in the South and de facto understandings in the North meant that most school boards consisted of all white members or a majority of whites. Underfunding of separate but equal schools occurred throughout the nation. Not until the early 1950s did education change.

In 1951 and 1952, five lawsuits were filed. African American parents were tired of the inferior and underfunded education school boards were giving to their children. Numerous families joined lawsuits in South Carolina, Delaware, Kansas, Virginia, and Washington, DC. Four of the lawsuits claimed that the school boards were in violation of the Equal Protection Under the Law Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The remaining lawsuit argued that an inferior and underfunded education for blacks was in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, black students attended colored schools. Some of the schools had no heating, electricity, or indoor plumbing. Most colored schools did not have gymnasiums or cafeterias. According to one lawsuit, the school board refused to provide transportation for black students stating there was no money in their budget while that district used thirty buses to transport white students.

While school boards maintained that they were providing an equal education, albeit separate for both blacks and whites, an increase in national desegregation efforts was gaining results. Most importantly, President Harry Truman issued an executive order on July 26, 1948, that abolished racial segregation in the armed forces. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and its Legal Defense Fund searched for local cases that were challenging education.

The five cases that became know as Brown v Board of Education were Harry Briggs, et al. v. R.W. Elliot, chairman, et al from Clarendon, South Carolina; Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County from Farmville, Virginia; Gebhart v. Belton from Claymont, Delaware; Bolling v. Sharpe from the District of Columbia; and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka from Kansas. All of the cases argued that because of ongoing underfunding of the black schools in each respective district, black students were not receiving the same education as white students.

The US Supreme Court heard the Brown case in December 1952. When no decision could be made to announce in the Spring of 1953 and with the death of Chief Justice Fred Vinson, the case was argued again on December 8, 1953. Chief Justice Earl Warren wanted a unanimous ruling to show that the nation had reached a consensus on legal segregation. President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke to Chief Justice Warren stating that southerners did not want their girls to sit next to big black men in class, but that they were not bad people.

Finally, on Monday, May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court announced its decision. Chief Justice Warren read for the majority in the unanimous decision. Stating that the importance for public education in the Republic had evolved into a requirement for good citizenship, the support of segregating children solely based on their race could no longer exist. As such, the Court ruled that separate education for the races was not equal and no longer constitutional.

With the announcement of the decision, the burden of responsibility to ensure equal public education for white and black children fell to the states. Many states were tasked with amending parts of their constitutions that were now unenforceable and formulating plans to comply with the Court’s Brown decision. To state that the issue remained contentious would be a massive understatement. Throughout the South, North, and even West, public educators, board members, parents, and students viciously and sometimes violently attacked each other in attempts to prevent school desegregation.

In the end, it was the Court’s ruling in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that was overturned. No longer could separate but equal be the law of the land in public accommodations. The Warren court had decided that equal meant together, not separate. The last word was yet to come.

5 Explosive U.S. Supreme Court Cases That Defined Race in America
Bused students from the suburbs to the city in Charlotte, North Carolina, circa 1973. Public Domain

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education – 1971

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive covenants could no longer be enforced through the courts, those that could move into suburban housing did so. Suburban communities were thought to be utopian and self-sustaining societies. Everything a person required could be found at the nearby strip mall, department store, or grocery store. Boulevards and streets wound through neighborhoods while interstate highways allowed suburbanites to travel through major metropolitan areas without ever seeing them. Schools reflected the ethnicity of the neighborhoods in which they were located.

New housing developments sprung up in the suburbs almost overnight. Fleeing the over-used and over-crowded city-center housing, they created new ethnic suburban enclaves. Developers were not coy in their advertising. They clearly stated if a new development was for whites or for people of color. With self-segregation in full swing, public schools began to look as they did in the decades before the Brown decision.

When the city school district consolidated with its county school district, the new Charlotte-Mecklenburg district had to devise a plan to integrate their schools as required by law. Busing was the only way to integrate the schools. For Charlotte, this meant creating a plan where inner city children, who were mostly black, were bussed out to white suburban schools and for white suburban kids to be bussed into inner city schools. Parents were not happy and violent protests erupted.

Parents did not want their children to go to integrated schools. White suburban parents wanted their children to remain in their neighborhood schools with their friends. For black students they did not want affluent whites in their schools as they brought with them a drug culture that interfered with the learning environment. As tempers flared, even the lawyers that argued for Swann had their homes firebombed and crosses burned in their front yards.

At issue in the Swann case was if bussing was a mode for which school districts throughout the country could ensure integration of their schools. When the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that bussing was the only way to integrate schools, a federal mandate was placed upon all districts. In the Court’s decision, they acknowledged that at some point, districts would be racially equal and then the mandatory busing would end, leaving the school districts to maintain equality on their own.

Throughout the 1970s and in the 1980s, mandated busing worked in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. As workers fled the Rust Belt cities of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio for the booming economy of the Queen City, busing again became a contentious matter. Eventually, mandated busing gave way to magnet and choice schools. For families that wanted to send their children to a school outside of their neighborhood, the district would not provide transportation. Parents either had to drive their children or they had to take public transportation.