Federal Records Pertaining to
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954)
This reference information paper provides descriptions of 52 case files that relate to Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the landmark school desegregation decision handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1954. These cases were heard before U.S. district and circuit courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court. In addition, there are descriptions of relevant records in the Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential libraries.
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John W. Carlin
Archivist of the United States
This reference information paper describes selected holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) that relate to or assist in the understanding of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, et al. (347 U.S. 483). On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered a unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court that effectively overruled the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537). The issue confronting the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson was whether state-sanctioned segregation violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled in Plessy that it was constitutional for states to maintain segregation of the races as long as states provided equal facilities. In the Brown decision, the Court concluded "that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place," and therefore was unconstitutional. The Brown decision's specific and clear mandate for education logically extended to desegregation in all publicly supported facilities and thus served as a catalyst for the expanding civil rights movement.1
The records described in this paper are from the executive and judicial branches of the Federal Government. They are listed chronologically in three distinct periods. The pre-Brown period records, 1896-1953, consist of case files from Records of the District Courts of the United States, Record Group (RG) 21; Records of the Supreme Court of the United States, RG 267; and Records of the United States Court of Appeals, RG 276. The records cited are school desegregation cases that formed the legal foundations for the Brown decision.
The second period is the 1954 benchmark Supreme Court case itself: Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas, et al. The Brown case consisted of four distinct cases from Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina, and Kansas. A fifth case, Spottswood Thomas Bolling et al. v. C. Melvin Sharpe et al. (347 U.S. 497), from the District of Columbia, joined the original four at the request of the Supreme Court. The case from Delaware actually constituted of two separate cases with identical issues (Belton v. Gebhart and Bulah v. Gebhart, 91. A. 2d 137 [S.C. of Del., 1952]). The two cases were ultimately joined as one with the other cases in the Supreme Court ruling. When these five cases made their way to the United States Supreme Court they were combined and became known as Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The Supreme Court rendered a separate opinion in the District of Columbia case (Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497) because the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was not applicable in the District of Columbia.
The post-Brown period records, 1955-1977, constitute the legal application of the original Brown ruling in 1954, and the 1955 Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al. II (349 U.S. 294) ruling that desegregation occur with "all deliberate speed." The records listed in this reference information paper, for the most part, conclude with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (78 Stat. 241), which in effect declared discrimination illegal in many facets of American life. The judicial consequences of the Brown decision extended beyond 1964. Numerous school desegregation cases were contested in the district courts of the United States. In addition, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 authorized the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to actively pursue the dismantling of segregation. Hence, this paper also includes information about relevant court cases after 1964. Personal papers of administration officials among Presidential libraries' collections may extend into the 1990s.
The records described and discussed in this reference information paper are organized in three categories. The first and largest category consists of records that originated in the judicial branch. These include records of U.S. District Courts in RG 21 that document school desegregation cases, including four of the five that constituted the Brown case. They also include records of the Supreme Court in RG 267 that document the Brown decision. The records of the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit in RG 276 include case files relating to the Brown decision.
The second category of records contains those that originated from agencies of the executive branch, primarily the Department of Justice (RG 60) and the Office of Education (RG 12). These records include case files pertaining to school desegregation that are found among the Subject Numeric Classified Files of the records of the Department of Justice (Class 144 Civil Rights). Some of the cases relate directly to the Brown decision and others are interrelated because of the courts' efforts to apply solutions to school desegregation. Also among the records of the Department of Justice are the files of the Assistant Attorney General's Civil Rights Division. This office became a vital component of the civil rights movement since it took legal actions to dismantle school segregation. Many of the files relate specifically to the Brown decision, and others provide insights into the attention given to school desegregation cases around the nation.
The Records of the Office of Education, RG 12, include materials relevant to the Brown decision in the records of the Assistant Commissioner for Higher Education. Within the records of the Division of Equal Educational Opportunity are files that pertain to school segregation and the Brown decision. The records of the Office of the Commissioner include several files that make reference to the Brown decision as well as documents that directly relate to the ruling.
The third category consists of records that originated in the Office of the President. Records in this category pertain more to the larger issue of civil rights than specifically to the Brown decision. Most of the pertinent records from the Eisenhower administration relate to the Little Rock, Arkansas, school desegregation crisis and the integration of southern schools. Among the collections are oral transcripts of administration officials who were involved with the Brown decision. Records of the Kennedy administration pertain to such subjects as integration, school desegregation, civil rights legislation, segregation, education, busing, and the desegregation of public institutions of higher education. Records from the Johnson administration include the Senate Papers of Lyndon B. Johnson, Statement File, and Personal Papers of Drew Pearson.
Although the records of the U.S. Congress include an enormous amount of materials documenting the origins and progression of the civil rights movement, they do not include records that reflect a discernable role played by the U.S. Congress in the origins or decision of the Brown ruling. Congressional activities demonstrated by legislative actions, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (78 Stat. 241) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (79 Stat. 437), relate to broader civil rights issues.
This paper identifies most of the records in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration that relate directly or indirectly to the Brown decision. However, this is not a definitive or comprehensive account of all pertinent records. Researchers should use this guide as an introduction to those NARA holdings that relate to this momentous event. Also, the records covered by this finding aid are not housed in a single repository. Some are located in the historic National Archives Building in Washington, DC; some are in the National Archives at College Park, MD, facility; some are in NARA's regional archives; and others are located in Presidential libraries. The descriptions that follow this introduction identify the location of each example of pertinent records. Appendix A provides a full listing of all court cases discussed in this guide. Appendix B provides the locations, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses of the identified repositories.
1 The landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, et al. is referred to as Brown (1954) in the case descriptions in this guide.
Trichita Chestnut compiled the information in this Reference Information Paper. Michael Kurtz, NW, established a working committee, chaired by Nancy Malan, NR, for the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, KS. He requested the committee to produce a guide to records that pertained to the Brown decision. James Hastings, NWCT, authorized the hiring of a student to work with Walter B. Hill, Jr., to work on the guide. He selected a Ph.D. student in history from Howard University who had received excellent recommendations from the History Department for her work. Ann Cummings, NWCTC, approved the work plan created for Ms. Chestnut, and Walter B. Hill, Jr., supervised the progress of the work. Ms. Chestnut quickly learned the work plan and made tremendous strides in the development of the guide.
Ann Cummings provided valuable assistance to the compilers. She worked steadily with the compilers, offered excellent comment and opinion, and kept the process on a rigid timeline. Her insights and editing for the introduction were very helpful and made the composition a valuable work experience. James Hastings provided valuable support through out the work plan, and was always available for comment and guidance. NARA archivists Robert Ellis, NWCTB, and Matthew Fulgham, NWL, provided important information on district court records and the U.S. Congress.
Special thanks go to Nancy Malan and Sharon Fawcett, NL. They diligently worked with their respective NARA units and assisted Ms. Chestnut's communication with the regional archives and Presidential libraries. The staff members of the Northeast Region (New York), Mid Atlantic Region (Philadelphia), Southeast Region (Atlanta), Great Lakes Region (Chicago), Central Plains Region (Kansas City), Southwest Region (Fort Worth), Pacific Region (Laguna Niguel), Pacific Region (San Francisco), and Pacific Alaska Region (Anchorage) provided valuable assistance in searching, identifying, and forwarding relevant cases to the compiler. Their assistance was fundamental to the process of compiling the guide.
Staffs of Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library (Abilene, KS), John F. Kennedy Presidential Library (Boston, MA), and Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library (Austin, TX) provided the compliers with insightful information on Presidential administrations that dealt with the complex issues of dismantling segregation. They provided important information from their collections of administration officials that handled the details and issues of the desegregation efforts.
This guide is a testament to will and dedication of the NARA staff to support an important effort for the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, KS. The compilers would also like to thank the Brown Foundation for their assistance.