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Important U.S. Supreme Court Cases: Cumming V. Richmond County Board of Education (1899)

Posted by Matt Schmidt | Jan 12, 2015 | 0 Comments

The Gist: The only high schools available  in Richmond County were for white students only. Plaintiffs brought this suit against the County to stop government funding to the white-only high schools, arguing such funding violated the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, they argued it also violated the "separate but equal" doctrine earlier established in the Plessy decision. The Supreme Court disagreed, allowing local governments wide discretion in education funding and holding Federal interference with local government was not justified absent a clear disregard of constitutional rights.

The Details: The Richmond County Board of Education chose to close the only public high school in the county for black people and instead use that funding for other educational purposes. Plaintiffs brought this case to the Supreme Court, arguing that providing no public high schools for black people violated the 14th amendment. The 14th amendment states: No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of  the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due  process  of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Earlier, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court had determined segregation laws--laws requiring the separation of black people from white people in public facilities--was constitutional because such laws were "separate but equal" (clearly, this was not true, as facilities for white people were far superior). Plaintiffs in this case argued  white-only high schools without an option for black people violated the "separate but equal" doctrine as well.

The Supreme Court allowed the Richmond County Board of Education to continue funding high schools for white people  without providing any black schools. It ruled that local governments should have great latitude in the allocation of educational funding, "the education of people in schools maintained by state taxation a matter belonging to the respective states." It also held the Federal Government should only interfere if there was a clear disregard of constitutional rights, effectively implying public education for black people at the high school level or beyond was not a right protected by the Constitution. This decision expanded the "separate but equal" doctrine and continued paving the way for local governments in southern states to pass laws  and execute funding involving substantial discrimination.

The Court also implied its decision might have been different had there been proof that the board's decisions were clearly due to hostility towards the black race, but this statement can be taken as seriously as the Court's earlier implication in Plessy that its decision might have been different had there been proof that the segregated facilities were not equal in quality. It was clear at the time that the agenda of all local southern governments was for the white race to maintain the upper hand over the black race. One of the methods to meet that agenda involved providing white people with superior educational opportunities--even in communities where there were black schools, the white schools had far better educational resources and facilities.

Interestingly, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote the unanimous majority opinion for the court--he was the only dissenter in Plessy.

This case was later overruled by Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

About the Author

Matt Schmidt

Matt graduated from the James E Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona in passing the Arizona bar exam in 2010. Matt's primary interest in law focuses on general personal injury and insurance bad faith.

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