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These Educational Institutions Helped Pave the Way for Civil Rights

From the Deep South to our nation’s Northern borders, Western shores, middle plains and former Eastern settlements, Segregation has had a profound effect on the education of Black and brown children for centuries. “Separate but not equal” was not just a catchphrase; it was an agonizing, daily way of life.

Despite this, the efforts of many courageous students, parents, educators, legislators and ordinary citizens contributed to the end of this unjust division, reshaping future learning opportunities for all children for decades to follow.

These six educational institutions on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail were among those that helped pave the way.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Little Rock, Arkansas

In Little Rock, Arkansas, the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site is where the Little Rock Nine became the first African American students to integrate the school amidst a yearlong turbulent backdrop of angry protests, verbal harassment, physical threats and daily armed protection from federal troops. But those nationally broadcast events were only part of the story.

“So much more happened after the 1958-59 school year,” said David Kilton, chief of interpretation at the historic site. “There is something called the Lost Year, where the governor put out to vote whether to continue with integration or close the schools. Those that could voted for the latter, so for an entire year all of the high schools within the district were closed.”

Although the students’ admission was called an integration, it was really a desegregation.

“Full integration,” Kilton said, “where there was a balanced ratio of student body, educators and administrators within the district, didn’t happen until the 1970s.”

Built in 1927, the school features a stunning combination of Collegiate Gothic and Art Deco styles extending nearly two city blocks and holds the distinction as the only National Park Service site with an active public school as the main feature. Visitors will see a replica of the bench where one of the Little Rock Nine sought shelter when initially turned away by the National Guard; a commemorative garden dedicated to the school’s alumni; and across the street, seven privately owned homes where protestors, the media and others congregated on the lawns during the unrest. These homes will soon be restored to appear as they did in the 1950s.

Howard High School of Technology

Wilmington, Delaware

Originally founded in 1867 as Public School No. 16 and later renamed in honor of Civil War Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, Howard High School of Technology has been at its current location since 1927. It was the only institution in the Delaware, southeast Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and northeastern Maryland areas to offer Black students a full high school education.

In the 1952 lawsuit Belton v. Gebhart, the parents of 12 students were represented as the former in pursuit of the right to enroll their children in a local all-white high school instead of at Howard, nine miles away. Not often taught in schools today, this is important because the lawsuit was one of five under the umbrella of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision that found racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

“Howard has rightfully earned its place in our nation’s Civil Rights history for more than 150 years,” said Joseph Jones, superintendent of the New Castle County Vocational Technical School District. “By telling the full story of the combined cases that led to the decision, we uncover the true struggle of our nation’s civil rights journey community by community.” 

Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2005, Howard High is still an active school and is currently not open for tours. However, there is legislation underway to include it as a National Park Service-affiliated area, after which efforts will begin in earnest to create visitor and special programming experiences.

Estey Hall at Shaw University

Raleigh, North Carolina

Before the Civil War, African Americans were systematically prevented from learning to read and write, and denied access to any type of formal educational settings. But as the years passed, in part because of protest movements, lawsuits and other actions, the tide began to change, leading to the establishment of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). It was at these institutions that African Americans received primary, secondary and, in some cases, postsecondary education.

Among them was Shaw University, the first HBCU in the South.

“Shaw University is a landmark for civil rights, education and the First Amendment,” said a university spokesperson. “Shaw accepted its first women students in 1866. It first began boarding women in 1870, and as a result, Estey Hall was erected in 1873.”

Named in honor of business leader and philanthropist Jacob Estey, who underwrote funding for the building, Estey Hall is the first building in the U.S. designated for the higher education of women of color, the first dormitory for women on a coeducational campus and Shaw University’s oldest surviving building.

In the 1960s, student and young civil rights activist Ella Jo Baker made one of her most indelible marks on this country here by helping to establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Estey Hall remained a women’s dorm until 1968, when it became a dormitory for men, later closing in 1970. Today it serves as the university’s main administration building. The general public can visit the campus, and special arrangements can be made to tour the Estey Hall building.

Robert Russa Moton High School and Museum

Farmville, Virginia

In 1951, 450 Black students staged a walkout to protest the deplorable overcrowding and structural conditions at Robert Russa Moton High School. With guidance from the NAACP, the event grew from a local protest into the only student-initiated case among the five lawsuits under the umbrella of Brown v. Board of Education.

In Farmville, the battle lasted 13 years: Upon losing the lawsuit, Prince Edward County decided to close all of its schools for five years — 1959 to 1964 — rather than desegregate. As such, those Black students also suffered as “The Walk-Out Generation” and “The Lock-Out Generation.”  In 1964, the Griffin v. Prince Edward Supreme Court decision eventually reopened the schools.

“The Moton School story is one of young citizens using the tools of a constitutional democracy to help bring about change,” said Cameron Patterson, executive director of the museum. “The immediate site surrounding the museum has changed little since 1951, [and] the development of the visitor experience has been planned to restore and preserve the historic views of the building and grounds from the site’s period of significance. The auditorium is the site of the student strike and, therefore, a very important place for us to introduce visitors to this piece of American history.”

Now a National Historic Landmark, the school and museum are also featured on the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail. Downtown, visitors can embark upon a two-mile Farmville Civil Rights Walking Tour  that features 17 places of civil rights significance between 1951 and 1964.

Sumner Elementary School

Topeka, Kansas

May 2021 marks the 67th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision that found racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Sumner Elementary School — originally built in the late 1800s as a school for Blacks, then later operated as a white school — was one of five schools across the country involved in the case.

The school is no longer open to the public; however, its story lives on at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. The building is significant in that it is the home of the former Monroe Elementary, where Black students denied enrollment at Sumner were forced to attend, even though it was farther from their homes and an unsafe walk to get there.

“Aspects of the historic court case really strike visitors as they learn the in-depth history and begin to piece together the impact it made on the country,” said park interpreter Dexter Armstrong. “Our visitors are also taken back by the multiple exhibits showcasing the timeline of African American history. One exhibit in particular is the Hall of Courage, where individuals walk down a hall with film of protestors, spectators and governors exhibiting unkindly behavior towards African Americans as a result of the victory of Brown v. Board of Education.”

This site challenges visitors mentally, said Armstrong, causing them to maneuver through the morally gray areas of policy using strategy to combat the law of segregation and not just the idea of it.

Southern University and A&M College

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Since its founding in 1880, Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge has risen as one of the nation’s premier HBCUs. The school played a significant role in the civil rights movement.

Among the successful nonviolent protests for equal rights and access to public facilities launched by the students were sit-ins at the local Greyhound bus station and Sitman’s Drug Store.

“While students at North Carolina A&T [in Greensboro] may legitimately be credited with initiating the sit-in movement in 1960, it was at Southern University where the largest demonstrations against Jim Crow segregation occurred,” said Albert Samuels, chair of the university’s department of political science and history. “Inspired by the example of college students elsewhere, Southern students began to sit in at local establishments. Soon after, a throng of 3,500 Southernites marched to the state Capitol. The size and breadth of the protest was made possible by an academic climate at Southern University that encouraged students to critically analyze American society and to critique the racial status quo in the South.”

Many alumni and students also participated in the bus boycott of 1953 that is said to have served as a model for the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1957. Their demonstrations led to Tennessee v. Garner, the 1985 Supreme Court case that challenged the use of deadly force by law enforcement in the apprehension of fleeing, unarmed, nonviolent felony suspects.