Before the landmark Brown v. Board decision, 17 states legally required—and another four permitted—racially segregated schools. In many communities, segregation relegated black children to schools lacking textbooks, libraries, auditoriums, cafeterias, and other amenities provided for white children. For some black children, segregation meant no school at all.
Until 1940, Howard High in Wilmington, Delaware, was the state’s only high school for black students. By 1953, three more black high schools had opened in Sussex, Kent, and New Castle counties, but nearly all black high school students had to travel long distances past white schools in their own communities to attend under-resourced, segregated schools.
White backlash to the 1954 Brown decision sparked “massive resistance,” including violent intimidation, organized protests, legal delay, and white flight from public schools. In 1959, Prince Edward County, Virginia, closed its entire public school system to avoid a federal desegregation order. More than 90% of white students enrolled in segregated private schools created with public money, while the county’s 1,700 black students received no public education until the Supreme Court ordered the public schools to reopen five years later.
Richard Vaughan, a black fourth grader when Prince Edward County schools closed, spent five years working in tobacco fields and struggled when he was advanced to eighth grade after school reopened. “You had to catch up with the other kids, but you stayed behind all the time,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2004 at age 53. He dropped out within a year. “Without your education, it’s so hard. I been there; I know how hard.”