“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

On May 23, 1951, Virginia NAACP lawyers Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood W. Robinson III filed suit in federal district court in the case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia. The complaint charged that inequalities and discrimination in educational facilities existed, but it also claimed that segregation was unconstitutional.
The national NAACP had initiated a legal campaign to undermine segregated education in the mid-1930s. By the time Davis was filed, national NAACP attorneys Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter were litigating Briggs v. Elliott from Clarendon County, South Carolina. Plaintiffs filed similar cases in Kansas, Delaware, and Washington, DC, all challenging the constitutionality of segregation in education. The Supreme Court chose to combine and hear the cases at one time under the Kansas case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

The federal district court heard the Davis case February 23-25, 1952. County officials had hired the best lawyers in Richmond and were assisted by state Attorney General J. Lindsay Almond. They argued that segregation was fundamental to Virginia’s way of life. The district court ordered the county to end discrimination in education, but upheld the constitutionality of segregation.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in the Brown cases in December 1952 and again in December 1953. On May 17, 1954, the Court declared segregation unconstitutional, but left unanswered the question of implementation. After further hearings, on May 31, 1955, the Court issued a second decision, often known as Brown II. The justices ordered the cases be remanded to the federal district courts, which were to “enter such orders…to admit to public schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed the parties to these cases.”




Charles Hamilton Houston

In 1935, Houston resigned as dean of Howard Law School to become Special Counsel for the NAACP. He then spearheaded the development of a long-range strategic plan to confront segregation in the United States by using the legal system to challenge “separate but equal” education.
“Discrimination in education is symbolic of all the more drastic discriminations which Negroes suffer in American life.”
“The hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them. I made up my mind that if I got through this war [World War I] I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall joined his former teacher and mentor Charles Hamilton Houston and the NAACP’s legal team in 1936. Marshall was promoted to co‑Special Counsel in 1938. In the following year, he established the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund to help further the organization’s fight against segregation. In 1940, when Houston officially resigned as Special Counsel, Marshall assumed leadership of the legal campaign.

“The complete destruction of all enforced segregation is now in sight.... We are going to insist on non-segregation in American public education from top to bottom—from law school to kindergarten. ”


“Experience has proved...that the average white lawyer, especially in the South, cannot be relied upon to wage an uncompromising fight for equal rights for negroes.”

The law firm of Hill, Martin, and Robinson of Richmond, Virginia, formed the core of the NAACP’s legal staff in Virginia. Thurgood Marshall entrusted his fellow Howard Law School graduates with advancing the Association’s legal campaign and pioneering litigation techniques used across the nation.
Hill, Martin, and Robinson
Richmond, VA
Martin A. Martin
Oliver Hill convinced Martin A. Martin, a 1938 graduate of Howard Law School who worked out of Danville, Virginia, to join the NAACP’s legal staff. Soon after Hill and Robinson teamed up, Martin joined their practice.
Oliver Hill
was a 1933 graduate of the Howard University Law School with a mission to end segregation. He moved to Richmond in 1938 to organize an effort to force equalization of school transportation, teacher pay, and school facilities. By 1948, the strategy had begun to pay out with a series of court victories that paved the way for the final end of Jim Crow.
Spottswood Robinson III
Robinson was detail-oriented and a brilliant legal tactician. Hill convinced Robinson to join him in forming a firm just before he left for service in World War II.
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“Certain persons posing as leaders of the Negro race have shocked many people in Virginia by advocating and urging the violation of the Constitution of our Commonwealth on the part of public school officials…

Segregation of the races in the public schools is called for in the fundamental law.

…It has been observed throughout the history of our Commonwealth and will continue to be observed…The white and Negro races have lived in harmony and mutual respect in Virginia longer than in any part of the Western Hemisphere."


The Prince Edward County School Board was represented by T. Justin Moore, Archibald G. (“Archie”) Robertson and John W. Riely of Hunton, Williams, Anderson, Gay and Moore, a prominent Virginia law firm with its office in Richmond.

Attorney General James Lindsay Almond and Assistant Attorney General Henry T. Wickham represented the Commonwealth of Virginia.

“We were determined to show that segregation and discrimination were not the same thing."

Almond, Davis, and Moore
Richmond, VA
Virginia Attorney General
J. Lindsay Almond
“We looked toward a very slow, evolutionary process, at the end of which the negro might take his place alongside the white man.... [M]eanwhile, there remained a profound, deep-rooted basis for segregation in Virginia.”
John W. Davis
The attorney for the South Carolina case, Davis, considered by many to be the most distinguished lawyer in the country, was a former Solicitor General of the United States and the Democratic Party’s nominee for President in 1924.
T. Justin Moore
Virginia Governor John Battle and Senator Harry F. Byrd personally asked Moore, the leading trial lawyer in the Commonwealth, to represent the Prince Edward County School Board in the Davis case.
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Farmville High School

“[We intend] to have the Prince Edward colored schools declared unequal and the Virginia segregation statute declared unconstitutional."

“There is no foundation whatever for the fundamental theory on which this case is built—namely, that equal facilities and advantages cannot be provided regardless of the amount of money that is spent...."




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The Davis plaintiffs asked that the state law requiring segregated schools in Virginia be struck down. A three-judge panel at the U.S. District Court unanimously rejected the students’ request, stating, “We have found no hurt or harm to either race.” The Prince Edward County School Board was ordered to proceed with plans to equalize the Prince Edward County schools.

“There was never any doubt about the outcome of the trial.... We were trying to build a record for the Supreme Court."


“We have found no hurt or harm to either race.”
Racial separation in Virginia, the judges found, rested “neither upon prejudice nor caprice nor upon any measureless foundation” but had “for generations been part of the mores of her people. To have separate schools has been their use and wont.”
— Judge Albert V. Bryan, Davis Ruling



Five school segregation cases from South Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, Delaware and Washington, D.C., were appealed to the United States Supreme Court when none of the cases was successful in the lower courts. The Supreme Court combined these cases into a single case which became Brown v. Board of Education.

The Brown Legal Team

A double line waited for the doors of the Supreme Court to open for another day of arguments on racial segregation in public schools.

“The Supreme Court will have to worry over community attitudes. Let us worry over the problem of pressing for our civil rights.... Let the Supreme Court take the blame if it dares say to the entire world, ‘Yes, democracy rests on a legalized caste system. Segregation of races is legal.’ Make the Court choose...”


September 8, 1953

Chief Justice Vinson dies of a heart attack.

March 1, 1954

Earl Warren is appointed Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

“Any estimate of Warren’s career will mark him as one of the seminal figures not only of his own time, but of the years that followed his death.... Earl Warren was neither a student of government nor 
a judicial craftsman.... 
He had only an abiding sense of the public good—that, and a respect for personal values considered old-fashioned or even irrelevant to the business of governing."





Clarendon, SC

Briggs V. Elliott

“The Negro child is made to go to an inferior school; he is branded in his own mind as inferior.... You can teach such a child the Constitution, anthropology and citizenship, but he knows it isn’t true."

Eliza Briggs

Washington, D.C.

Bolling V. Sharpe

“You either have liberty or you do not. When liberty is interfered with by the state, it has to be justified, and you cannot justify it by saying that we only took a little liberty. You justify it by the reasonableness of the taking."

Prince Edward Co., VA

Davis V. Prince Edward

“Notwithstanding Virginia’s efforts in this case, it is clear that her racial policy in public education cannot be permitted to endure."

Dorothy Davis stands with a group of fellow Davis v. Board of Education plaintiffs in front of R. R. Moton High School’s tar paper shacks.

Wilmington, DE

Belton V. Gebhart

“I believe the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine in education should be rejected, but I also believe its rejection must come from [the U.S. Supreme] Court."

Ethel Belton

Topeka, KS

Brown V. Board of Education

“If it weren’t for Plessy v. Ferguson, we surely would have found the law unconstitutional. But there was no way around it—the Supreme Court had to overrule itself."

Linda Brown


By 1953, a new R. R. Moton High School had been built at a cost of over $800,000 using state government Battle Fund and Literary Fund monies. The new Moton High School was part of a massive state program to equalize schools in response to local desegregation lawsuits such as the Davis v. Prince Edward case.
“The county shall pursue ‘with diligence and dispatch’ its equalization of facilities for Negro students.”
“Both local and state authorities are moving with speed to complete the [equalization of facilities].”

“Is equity to be unmindful to the psychological truth that change, especially drastic change, takes time?"


May 17, 1954

“What the South was guilty of was an inherent determination that the people who were formerly in slavery, regardless of anything else, shall be kept as near that stage as is possible, and now is the time, we submit, that this Court should make it clear that this is not what our Constitution stands for."

“We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does."

“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place."

“Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."


“The highest court in the land has spoken, and I trust that Virginia will approach the question realistically and endeavor to work out some rational adjustment.”

“The decision will be deplored by millions of Americans, and, instead of promoting the education of our children, it is my belief that it will have the opposite effect in many areas of the country. In Virginia we are facing now a crisis of the first magnitude.”
— SEN. HARRY F. BYRD, MAY 17, 1954


“With all deliberate speed”

“While giving weight to...public and private considerations, the courts will require that the defendants make a prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance with our May 17, 1954, ruling."

“The practical difficulties which may be met in making progressive adjustment to a non-segregated system cannot be ignored or minimized....
A reasonable period of time will obviously be required to permit formulation of new areas affected by the Court’s decision."

“A program for ‘orderly and progressive transition’ to be carried out ‘within a specific period’ would serve to reduce any community antagonisms that might arise from a desegregation order."

“Because these cases arose under different local conditions and their disposition will involve a variety of local problems, we requested further argument on the question of relief."