Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision changing the course of history on May 17, 1954, provided a new outlook on the prospect of quality education for millions of children. Along with it comes the names of history makers synonymous with the case like Thurgood Marshall and Linda Brown, but the AFRO American Newspaper would add to the list, the “unsung heroes” who worked alongside them, charted the course and fought tirelessly for the victory. The architect of the NAACP legal defense fund of Brown, educator and lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston persisted until his death just months before the landmark decision. Barbara Johns and Robert R. Moton High School in Farmville, Va. proved school children cared as much about their education as their parents. Charismatic lawyers Spottswood Robinson and Charles E. C. Hayes represented the legal defenses in the desegregation in the Farmville and Washington, D.C. cases respectively. And finally, Ada Sipuel, the woman who did not rest until she was provided the graduate school education she deserved. These individuals are the unsung history makers of a landmark movement that without doubt influenced education, but beyond that, all facets of fair and equal public accommodations. These names should be remembered; these stories told.
Charles Hamilton Houston, “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow”
Charles Hamilton Houston was an African-American lawyer whose brilliant strategy of using the inherent inequality of the “separate but equal” philosophy (from the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision) as it manifested in public education proved integral to the Brown v. Board victory.
The Washington, D.C. native had a hand in nearly every civil rights case before the Supreme Court from 1930 leading up to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, according to the NAACP website.
Houston matriculated at Dunbar High School in the District, then at Amherst College, from which he graduated in 1915. For two years, he taught English at Howard University, before leaving to serve in the Army for two years.
The discrimination he saw and experienced in military service influenced Houston’s decision to become an attorney like his father. He enrolled at Harvard Law School, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1922 and his doctoral degree in 1923. While there he became the first African-American to serve as an editor of the Harvard Law Review.
Houston also helped found the National Bar Association, an all-Black organization, in 1925 since the American Bar Association refused to admit African-American attorneys.
As a member of Howard University Law School’s faculty, Houston trained and mentored talented students like Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill – the first and second in their class who later argued Brown v. Board of Education – to lead the fight against racial injustice.
Beginning in the 1930s, after leaving Howard, Houston served as the first special counsel to the NAACP, heaving up its civil rights litigation. And he recruited former students like Hill and Marshall, the latter of whom eventually took over as head of the NAACP’s legal team and joined the Supreme Court.
Summing up Houston’s contribution to the struggle against segregation and racism, Marshall later remarked, “We owe it all to Charlie.”
Spottswood Robinson III, Civil Rights Warrior
Spottswood Robinson III was among the inner circle of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a key litigator in its Brown v. Board of Education case.
Born in Richmond, Va., on July 26, 1916, Robinson attended Virginia Union University and then attended Howard University School of Law, graduating first in his class in 1939, according to Brown@50.org. Like Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill, his LDF colleagues, Robinson credits Howard University for instilling within him a sense of social responsibility, which he upheld after his graduation.
Robinson was a faculty member of the Howard University School of Law from his graduation in 1939 until 1947, when he joined the NAACP’s legal team.
Taking the cause of social justice to heart, Robinson, law partner Oliver Hill and others crisscrossed Virginia in the late 1940s and '50s, attempting to tear down racism, discrimination and injustice case by case. At one time, according to PBS.org, they had legal actions in 75 school districts.
One of those cases was Davis v. the School Board of Prince Edward County, which was initiated when African-American students from Farmville, Va. decided to strike in protest of the abject state of their school.
One month after the strike began, on May 23, 1951, Robinson filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Richmond. It eventually became one of the cases that was combined to form Brown v. Board of Education.
From 1960-1964, Spottswood Robinson was dean of the Howard University School of Law. He also served as a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights from 1961 to 1963.
In 1964, Robinson became the first African American appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Two years later, he became the first African American appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit when he was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson. On May 7, 1981, Judge Robinson became the first African American to serve as chief judge of the court.
R.R. Moton High School
In the fight for public school desegregation in Virginia, R.R. Moton High School was ground zero. The all-Black school was located in Farmville, a rural tobacco farming community just a few miles from Appomattox, Va., the site of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant to end the Civil War, according to the Smithsonian website.
In 1951, a group of students led by 11th-grader Barbara Johns led a strike to demand a better school. Moton High was overcrowded and underfunded, with leaky, poorly heated classrooms, and the nearby Farmville High School, a large and well-equipped Whites-only institution, served as a constant reminder of the inequities of segregation.
Spottswood Robinson III and Oliver Hill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund met with the students and said if enough of their parents would join a lawsuit — an action that could cost those parents their jobs or their bank loans or their farms — the LDF lawyers would file it, according to PBS.org. The parents proved equally stalwart, and one month after the strike began, Robinson filed the lawsuit, Davis v. the School Board of Prince Edward County in the federal court in Richmond.
Ninth-grader Dorothy Davis was the first plaintiff listed on the complaint on behalf of 117 Moton students and their parents. Johns was not listed on the complaint as her parents had sent her to Alabama, fearing for her safety.
The federal district court rejected the complaint and upheld segregation in Prince Edward County. The LDF team appealed the decision to the Supreme Court as part of Brown v. Board of Education.
Constance Baker Motley, Courtroom Tactician
Like other female freedom fighters of the Civil Rights Movement who rarely grabbed the headlines, Constance Baker Motley was a behind-the-scenes—though no less integral—member of the Brown v. Board legal team.
Born on Sept. 14, 1921, in New Haven, Conn., Motley was one of nine children born to West Indian emigrants, according to Biography.com.
Her involvement in the civil rights campaign began as a teenager when she was banned from a public beach. In high school, Motley became president of the local NAACP youth council.
Motley enrolled at Fisk University but later transferred to New York University, where she earned her economics degree in 1943. Motley went on to earn her law degree from Columbia Law School.
In 1945, fresh from graduate school, Motley became a law clerk for Thurgood Marshall, then-leader of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the premier agent in the legal fight against racial injustice. She later joined the group of overworked, underpaid lawyers, and established herself as a force to be reckoned with. In fact, in 1950, she helped draft the briefs for the Board v. Board of Education complaint.
“Her métier was in the quieter, painstaking preparation and presentation of lawsuits that paved the way to fuller societal participation by blacks,” lauded the New York Times in Motley’s 2005 obituary. “She dressed elegantly, spoke in a low, lilting voice and, in case after case, earned a reputation as the chief courtroom tactician of the civil rights movement.”
Other important victories followed Brown: She represented several student “Freedom Fighters” and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. More notably, she directed the legal campaign that resulted in the admission of James H. Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962. Of the 10 cases she argued before the Supreme Court, Motley won nine.
After a two-year stint as a New York state senator, the apex of Motley’s legal career came in 1966, when she became the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge, overseeing many civil rights cases. She served in that capacity until her death in 2005.
Ada L. Sipuel Fisher, Oklahoma pioneer
Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher challenged the lie that was the “separate but equal” doctrine, and in doing so, chipped away at the walls of segregation and opened the doors of opportunity to other African-American students.
Fisher née Sipuel was born Feb. 8, 1924, and grew up under Jim Crow in Chickasha, Okla., according to the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.
An avid student, Fisher graduated from Langston University with honors on May 21, 1945, with dreams of becoming a lawyer.
There were no Black law schools and state statutes prohibited Negroes from attending White state universities. Instead, Oklahoma paid for Blacks to be sent to out-of-state schools that accepted African-American students.
At the behest of the NAACP’s Legal and Educational Defense Fund, Fisher applied for admission to the University of Oklahoma College of Law on Jan. 14, 1946, with an eye to challenging the state’s segregation laws.
The school rejected her application and Fisher’s attorneys, led by Thurgood Marshall and Oklahoman Amos T. Hall, filed suit on April 6, 1946, alleging that the absence of a comparable law school for African-American students required that Fisher be admitted to the university, according to the Civil Rights Digital Library.
A District court and – after appeal – the state supreme court ruled against Fisher in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 12, 1948, that Oklahoma had to provide Fisher with the same opportunities for securing a legal education as it did for other citizens.
State legislators, instead of allowing Fisher to enter the all-White law school, hastily threw together a makeshift Black law school, Langston University School of Law, for Fisher to attend. It was produced in five days and situated in the State Capitol's Senate rooms.
On March 15, 1948, Fisher’s lawyers filed a motion in the Cleveland County District Court contending that while Langston was certainly “separate” it was by no means providing a legal education that was “equal” to that afforded White students at UO’s law school.
As expected, the District and state supreme court rejected the complaint, and Marshall et al announced their intent to take the case back to the U.S. Supreme Court. Faced with certain loss, the attorney general capitulated, and on June 18, 1949, Fisher enrolled at University of Oklahoma College of Law, becoming the first African-American woman to attend an all-White law school in the South.
Fisher was cordoned off from her fellow classmates in the classroom behind a “Colored” sign, in the cafeteria, and in other areas of the school. Still, she graduated in 1951 with a law degree, and her case served as the forerunner to Brown v. Board.