Educator Resources

Timeline of Events Leading to the Brown v. Board of Education Decision of 1954

1857: Dred Scott, Plaintiff in Error v. John F. A. Sanford

The Supreme Court held that Black people, enslaved or free, could not be citizens of the United States. Chief Justice Taney wrote that the original framers of the 1787 Constitution believed that Black people were considered a subordinate and inferior class of beings, "with no rights which the White man was bound to respect."

Significance: The Supreme Court denied citizenship to Black people, setting the stage for their treatment as second class citizens.

1865: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen's Bureau,was established by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865. Its main mission was to provide relief and help freedmen become self-sufficient in all areas of life.

Significance: The first Black schools were set up under the direction of the Freedmen’s Bureau. One of those schools – Howard University – would eventually train and graduate the majority of the legal team that overturned Plessy, including Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall.

1865: Black Codes

Black Codes was a name given to laws passed by southern governments established during the presidency of Andrew Johnson. These laws imposed severe restrictions on freedpeople, such as prohibiting their right to vote, forbidding them to sit on juries, and limiting their right to testify against white men. They were also forbidden from carrying weapons in public places and working in certain occupations.

Significance: Segregation Begins - Public schools were segregated, and Black people were barred from serving on juries, and testifying against White people.


1866: Civil Rights Act of 1866

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 guaranteed Black people basic economic rights to contract, sue, and own property.

Significance: The intention of this law was to protect all persons in the United States, including Black people, in their civil rights.


1868: The 14th Amendment to the Constitution is ratified.

Significance: The 14th Amendment overruled Dred Scott v. Sanford. It guaranteed that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States and of the state in which they reside, and that no state shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens, deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person the equal protection of the law. 

1873: Slaughterhouse Cases

These cases narrowly defined Federal power and weakened the power of the Fourteenth Amendment by asserting that most of the rights of citizens are under state control.

Significance: Pro-segregation states would come to justify their policies and claim that segregation in their public school systems was a states' rights issue.

1875: Civil Rights Act of 1875

In March, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, prohibiting discrimination in inns, theaters, and other places of public accommodation. It was the last Federal civil rights act passed until 1957.

Significance: Discrimination in places of public accommodation was prohibited.

1883: Civil Rights Cases

The Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and declared that the Fourteenth Amendment does not prohibit discrimination by private individuals or businesses.

Significance: The Court declared that the Fourteenth Amendment does not prohibit discrimination by private individuals or businesses, paving the way for segregation in public education.

1887: Jim Crow

The practices of comprehensive racial segregation known as "Jim Crow" emerged, and racial separation becomes entrenched.

Significance: Black people largely disappeared from juries in the South. Florida was the first state to enact a statute requiringsegregation in places of public accommodation. Eight other states followed Florida's lead by 1892.

1896: Plessy v. Ferguson

Homer A. Plessy challenged an 1890 Louisiana law that required separate train cars for Black Americans and White Americans in the case Homer Adolph Plessy, Plaintiff in Error v. J.H. Ferguson, Judge of Section "A" Criminal District Court for the Parish of Orleans. The Supreme Court held that separate but equal facilities for White and Black railroad passengers did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Significance: Plessy v. Ferguson established the “separate but equal” doctrine that would become the constitutional basis for segregation. Justice John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter in Plessy, argued that forced segregation of the races stamped Black people with a badge of inferiority. That same line of argument would become a decisive factor in the Brown v. Board decision.

1899: Cumming v. Board of Education of Richmond County, State of Georgia

The Supreme Court upheld a local school board's decision to close a free public Black school due to fiscal constraints, despite the fact that the district continued to operate two free public white schools.

Significance: The Court’s opinion argued that there was no evidence in the record that the decision was based on racial discrimination and that the distribution of public funds for public education was within the discretion of school authorities.

1908: Thurgood Marshall Born in Baltimore, MD, on July 2nd

Significance: Thurgood Marshall would become lead counsel in the Brown v. Board of Education case.

1908: Berea College v. Commonwealth of Kentucky

The Supreme Court upheld a Kentucky state law forbidding interracial instruction at all schools and colleges in the state.

1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Founded

W.E.B. DuBois, Ida Wells-Barnett, Mary White Ovington, and others founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Their mission was to eliminate lynching, and to fight racial and social injustice, primarily through legal action.

Significance: The NAACP became the primary tool for the legal attack on segregation, eventually trying the Brown v. Board of Education case.


1927: Gong Lum v. Rice

In Gong Lum v. Rice, the Supreme Court held that a Mississippi school district may require a Chinese-American girl to attend a segregated Black school rather than a White school.

Significance: The Court applied the "separate but equal" formulation of Plessy v. Ferguson to public schools.


1935: The NAACP Begins challenging segregation in graduate and secondary schools.

Assisted by his protégé Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston of the NAACP began his strategy of challenging segregation in graduate and professional schools.

Significance: Houston developed a legal strategy that would eventually lead to victory over segregation in the nation’s schools through the Brown v. Board case. Houston’s rationale for attacking segregated law schools was largely two-pronged. First, the establishment of separate but equal law school facilities for Black and White students would become too costly for the states. Second, White judges who matriculated in some of the nation’s finest law schools could not, in good conscience, suggest that Black lawyers in segregated schools received "equal" legal training.


1938: State of Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada

The Supreme Court decided in favor of Lloyd Gaines, a Black student who had been refused admission to the University of Missouri Law School.

Significance: This case set a precedent for other states to attempt to "equalize" Black school facilities, rather than integrate them. The Court held that the state must furnish Gaines "within its borders facilities for legal education substantially equal to those which the State there offered for the persons of the white race, whether or not other Negroes sought the same opportunity."

1939: Thurgood Marshall Named Special Counsel for NAACP

Marshall succeeded his mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston.

Significance: Thurgood Marshall would eventually be lead counsel in the Brown v. Board of Education case.

1948: The NAACP board of directors formally endorsed Thurgood Marshall's view on segregation strategy.

By adopting Marshall's view, the NAACP decided to devote its efforts solely to an all-out attack on segregation in education, rather than pressing for the equalization of segregated facilities.

Significance: The NAACP defense team attacked the "equal" standard so that the "separate" standard would, in turn, become vulnerable.

1948: Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma

A unanimous Supreme Court held that Lois Ada Sipuel could not be denied entrance to a state law school solely because of her race.

Significance: The Court ruled denial of entrance to a state law school solely on the basis of race unconstitutional.

1949: Briggs v. Elliott

Thurgood Marshall and NAACP officials met with Black residents of Clarendon County, SC. They decided that the NAACP would launch a test case against segregation in public schools if at least 20 plaintiffs could be found. By November, Harry Briggs and 19 other plaintiffs were assembled, and the NAACP filed a class action lawsuit against the Clarendon County School Board: Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al.

Significance: Briggs v. Elliott became one of the cases consolidated by the Supreme Court into Brown v. Board of Education.

1950: Sweatt v. Painter

The Supreme Court held that the University of Texas Law School must admit a Black student, Heman Sweatt. The University of Texas Law School was far superior in its offerings and resources to the separate Black law school, which had been hastily established in a downtown basement.

Significance: The Supreme Court held that Texas failed to provide separate but equal education, prefiguring the future opinion in Brown that "separate but equal is inherently unequal."

1950: McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents

The Supreme Court invalidated the University of Oklahoma's requirement that a Black student, admitted to a graduate program unavailable to him at the state's Black school, sit in separate sections of, or in spaces adjacent to, the classroom, library, and cafeteria.

Significance: The Supreme Court held that these restrictions were unconstitutional because it interfered with his "ability to study, to engage in discussions, and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession."

1950: Bolling v. Sharpe Set in Motion

Charles Houston provided legal representation for the Consolidated Parents Group, who, under the direction of Gardner Bishop, attempted to enroll a group of Black students in all White John Philip Sousa Junior High School, in Washington, D.C.

Significance: The Bolling case became one of the consolidated Brown cases. The U.S. Supreme Court would eventually file a separate opinion on Bolling because the 14th Amendment was not applicable in Washington, D.C.

February 1951: Brown v. Board of Education filed

On February 28, Brown v. Board of Education was filed in Federal district court, in Kansas.

May 1951

Davis v. Prince Edward County Filed

NAACP lawyer Spottswood Robinson filed Davis v. Prince Edward County, a challenge to Virginia's segregated schools.

Significance: Davis et al. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, et al., was another of the cases eventually consolidated as Brown v. Board of Education.

Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al. to Trial

This South Carolina case went to trial. Marshall and the NAACP presented a vast array of social science evidence showing how segregation harmed Black school children, including evidence from sociologist Kenneth Clark's controversial "Doll Study."

Significance: The U.S. District Court denied the Briggs plaintiff’s request to order desegregation of Clarendon County, SC, schools and instead ordered the equalization of Black schools. Judge Julius Waring was the lone dissenter.

June 1951: Brown v. Board of Education to Trial

Robert Carter led the NAACP legal team into trial.

Significance: In August, a three-judge panel at the U.S. District Court unanimously held in the Brown v. Board of Education case that "no willful, intentional or substantial discrimination" existed in Topeka’s schools. The U.S. District Court found that the physical facilities in White and Black schools were comparable and that the lower court’s decisions in Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin only applied to graduate education.

October 1951: Gebhart Cases to Trial

Gebhart  et al. v. Belton et al.; Gebhart et al. v. Bulah et al.; Belton et al. v. Gebhart et al.; and Bulah et al. v. Gebhart et al. went to trial.

March 1952: Davis v. Prince Edward County, VA, District Court Ruling

The U.S. District court found in favor of the school board under the theory of "separate but equal."

Significance: The U.S. District Court unanimously rejected the Davis plaintiffs’ request to order desegregation of Prince Edward County, VA, schools, ordering the "equalization" of Black schools instead.

April 1952: Ruling in Gebhart Cases

A Delaware court ruled that the plaintiffs in Gebhart et al. v. Belton et al., Gebhart et al. v. Bulah et al., Belton et al. v. Gebhart et al., and Bulah et al. v. Gebhart et al. were entitled to immediate admission to White public schools.

Significance: In the Gebhart cases, the court ruled that the plaintiffs were being denied equal protection of the law and ordered that the 11 children involved be immediately admitted to Delaware’s White schools. The board of education appealed the decision.

June 1952: Briggs and Brown

The Supreme Court announced that it would hear oral arguments in Briggs and Brown during the upcoming October 1952 term.

October 1952: Bundling of Brown v. Board Cases

Days before arguments were to be heard in Briggs and Brown, the Supreme Court announced a postponement. Three weeks later, the Court announced that it would also hear the Delaware cases, as well as Davis v. Prince Edward County and the District of Columbia case, Bolling et al. v. Sharpe et al.

Significance: The Supreme Court agreed to hear all five of the school desegregation cases collectively. This grouping was significant because it showed school segregation as a national issue, not just a southern one.

Note: The Supreme Court eventually rendered a separate opinion on Bolling v. Sharpe because the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was not applicable in the District of Columbia.

December 9th–11th, 1952: Brown Arguments

First round of arguments held in Brown and its companion cases.

June 1953: Second Round of Arguments Ordered

The Supreme Court ordered that a second round of arguments in Brown v. Board be heard in October.

September 1953: President Eisenhower nominated Earl Warren as interim Chief Justice.

Chief Justice Fred Vinson Jr. died unexpectedly of a heart attack on September 8th. President Eisenhower nominated California Governor Earl Warren to replace Vinson as interim Chief on June 30th. The Court rescheduled arguments in Brown for December.

Significance: Justice Earl Warren would go on to deliver the unanimous ruling in the Brown v. Board case.

December 7th – 9th, 1953: Second Round of Brown Arguments

The second round of arguments occurred in Brown v. Board of Education.

March 1954: Warren Confirmed

The Senate confirmed Earl Warren as Chief Justice.

May 17, 1954: Supreme Court Rulings 

Brown v. Board of Education

The Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, and declared that racial segregation in public schools violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Bolling v. Sharpe

That same day, the Court held that racial segregation in the District of Columbia public schools violated the Due Process clause of the 5th Amendment in Bolling v. Sharpe.


The Court scheduled arguments on remedy in Brown for October but eventually put them off until April of 1955.

Significance: The Court ruled that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment and was, therefore, unconstitutional. In the wake of the decision, the District of Columbia and some school districts in the border states began to desegregate their schools voluntarily.

State legislatures in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia adopted resolutions of "interposition and nullification" that declared the Court's decision to be "null, void, and no effect."

Various southern legislatures passed laws that imposed sanctions on anyone who implemented desegregation, and enacted school closing plans that authorized the suspension of public education, and the disbursement of public funds to parents to send their children to private schools.

October 1954: President Eisenhower nominated John Marshall Harlan to the Supreme Court.

After the sudden death of Justice Jackson, President Eisenhower nominated John Marshall Harlan, the grandson of the lone dissenter in Plessy, to fill the vacancy. After long hearings before the Senate, Harlan was finally sworn in as an Associate Justice in March of 1955.

April 1955: Brown Arguments on Remedies

The Supreme Court heard its third round of arguments in Brown, this time concerning remedies.

May 31: Brown II Decision

On the last day of the term, the Supreme Court handed down Brown II, ordering that desegregation occur with "all deliberate speed."

Significance: Brown II was intended to work out the mechanics of desegregation. Due to the vagueness of the term "all deliberate speed," many states were able to stall the Court’s order to desegregate their schools. The legal and social obstacles that southern states put in place and encouraged, in their effort to thwart integration, served as a catalyst for the student protests that launched the civil rights movement.


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