Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Stone on Brown's Precursor: Blue

Donovan J. Stone, a 2020 graduate of Duke Law School, has published Blue v. Durham Public School District and the Campaign for School Equalization, in the North Carolina Civil Rights Law Review:

Plessy v. Ferguson’s separate but equal doctrine governed challenges to racial discrimination in public schools for nearly sixty years after 1896. That changed, of course, with the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. But before Brown, there was Blue v. Durham Public School District, a 1951 case decided within Plessy’s framework. Blue held that black schools in Durham, North Carolina, though certainly separate, were demonstrably unequal to the city’s white schools. In response, local officials allocated more than one million dollars—worth roughly ten million dollars today—to “equalize” the parallel systems. Such equalization suits are an important yet understudied phenomenon of the decade that preceded Brown. Seeking to enforce Plessy’s purported equality mandate, black lawyers across the country—often buoyed by the NAACP—sued local school districts. Yet by the time the Blue plaintiffs filed their complaint in 1949, many lawyers had grown discontent with that strategy; they preferred attacking segregation directly. Indeed, lawyers launched a wave of desegregation lawsuits just months after the Durham attorneys argued Blue. This Article analyzes why Blue sought equalization when others sought desegregation. After detailing the Blue litigation, I conclude that the local lawyers requested equalization in part because they were from Durham—a city where African Americans believed they could compete if afforded an equal opportunity. Emphasis on Durham does not undermine Blue’s national significance. The decision also illustrates the flaws in Plessy’s doctrine: If schools were unequal even in Durham, the nation’s “Capital of the Black Middle Class,” then Plessy’s failure was inevitable.

--Dan Ernst