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Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education

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Significance: The Supreme Court refused to enforce the equal stipulation in the separate but equal doctrine governing segregated schools that had been established in its landmark 1896 decision.


Just three years after announcing the separate but equal doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court unanimously refused to take action in a case in which school facilities for blacks and whites were definitely unequal. Cumming, which amounted to the Court's first approval of racially segregated public schools, was never overturned. John Marshall Harlan, who wrote the opinion for the Court, had dissented vigorously in Plessy but was unable to find a clear, unmistakable disregard of equality in Cumming. In 1879 the Augusta, Georgia, school board had established the first African American public high school in the state. The board closed the school in 1897, claiming that the money was needed for black primary school education. Because a Georgia statute explicitly provided for separate but equal facilities, the local judge did not bother to consider the U.S. Constitution in overturning the board's judgment. Still, the Georgia supreme court, without offering any significant reasons, overturned the local judge's opinion. African Americans argued that under the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, they were entitled to a high school if one was provided for white students, but Harlan asserted that the African American plaintiffs had to prove the board decision was motivated exclusively by hostility toward African Americans, which was impossible to prove. To reach his decision, Harlan ignored several lower court precedents that went in the opposite direction.