Education and Social Justice Journal

"Separate But Equal: Have Schools Ever Truly Changed?"

Kira Morningstar


After the closing of the American Civil War in 1865, blacks in the United States were finally given freedoms that many of them had longed for and deserved for many years. As Tozer, Violas, and Sense (2002) write in "School and Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives," these freedoms included the right to full citizenship from the Fourteenth Amendment, the right to vote from the Fifteenth Amendment, and the right to public education. These rights were extremely valued by blacks, but the right to a public and free education was the most highly valued. It was that right that was exercised to the point that white students and white teacher numbers were in the shadows of those of black students and black teachers for some time. Blacks knew the value of a good education and they valued education very highly.

Blacks may have been given the right to a free and public education, but this did not mean that their education was to be with whites. The education, along with all other aspects of their lives, that blacks received was "separate but equal," as ruled by the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case (Tozer et al., 2002). The black students were taught by black teachers and in separate schools. The Supreme Court and its ruling may have liked to say that education for blacks was truly equal, but it was not, and everyone knew it, whether they liked to acknowledge this fact or not.

When the schools for black students were created during the Reconstruction Era beginning in 1867, the funding for these schools and for the schools for white children came from the same source. All funding was equally dispersed also. The money for each school was determined on the amount of poll taxes and real estate taxes paid by both the white and black populations. Soon afterwards, however, the funding plan was reformed and took many crucial advantages away from the black population. In 1890, the State Superintendent of Education, Solomon Palmer put forth House Bill 504, which proposed that each school district's allotted funding be given in total to the township officials to divide and hand out in ways they thought were "just and equitable" (Tozer, et al., 2002) shows the readers the important detail that this Bill neglected to mention was that the township officials were white, thus the greater funding amounts often went to the white schools since they felt that it was needed more there and that the black students who were thought not intellectually advanced enough for the funding to serve them well at their schools. This was just one way in which the black schools were separate but not equal from white schools. The conditions of the schools and of the materials that the black students used were also poorer than the conditions in white schools.

Funding and conditions of the schools which black students attended continued to remain poorer than the white schools well into the first half of the Twentieth Century. On May 31, 1955, the situation for black students was changed, however. On this date the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas resulted in the desegregation of schools, allowing black students to attend schools alongside white students. In his speech, "50 Years After Brown," Mayor William Johnson of Rochester, New York (2004) told listeners that this was a giant leap in the right direction for education, but unfortunately along with this ruling, he said, many teaching and education administration positions held by blacks were lost. Black students also dealt with a great deal of ridicule, criticism, and acts of racism while attending the schools with white students.

To expect that segregation could be completely eliminated from the United States education system was a situation only hoped for by the most optimistic. Schools were not racially desegregated but now began to become segregated economically and by social class. This form of segregation is referred to as de facto segregation, meaning that it is not mandated by a government. This meant that students of the same or similar social classes and their families were living in the same areas and thus attending the same schools. This leads to lack of diversity and also lack of differing opinions and valuable learning opportunities. Many of the members of the black race in these areas had been held back economically and because of this were forced into the lower socio-economic status, too. Thus, even though schools were said to be desegregated and no longer "separate but equal," many schools still housed large numbers of certain races and were still segregated, but this time through different methods (Johnson, 2004 and Morse, 2004).

A perfect example of where this is still happening today is in the schools in the city of Rochester, New York. The schools in the school district of Rochester are some of the most segregated schools in the nation. The schools are not intentionally meant to be segregated, of course. People often live, however, in similar places as those with similar economic and class standing and also often of the same race, too. As a result of this, many of the schools in the city of Rochester have either an overwhelming number of a minority, primarily the black minority, or consist of the white majority.

In the over fifty schools that are part of the Rochester City School District, in 2003, the New York State School Report Card District Report totaled the number of students to be 34,526. Approximately sixty-four percent of this population of students was black and 14.4% white, meaning there were 22,048 black students and 4,988 white students enrolled in 2003. John Marshall High School, which is located slightly north of the heart of the school district (Rochester City School District Map), was recorded to have 1005 black students enrolled in 2003 (74.3%) and only 184 white students (13.6%) attending (New York State School Report Card: John Marshall H. S.). The Lewis H. Morgan Elementary School, located in the southwestern corner (Rochester City School District Map) of the school district also had very different numbers. In 2003, the New York State School Report Card recorded that there were a total of 375 students enrolled in it. Approximately ninety percent of these students, or 336, were black students and there was a mere 7.2% (27 students) white students enrolled there (NYS School Report Card: Lewis H. Morgan Elementary).

While the black student population seemed to be concentrated in the Rochester City school district, its neighboring suburban school district, Gates-Chili School District, was housing populations virtually opposite to those in Rochester. At Gates-Chili High School alone, it was recorded that in 2003 there were 1365 white students (83.5%) enrolled and only 176 black students (10.8%) (NYS School Report Card: Gates-Chili H. S.). I believe this example, along with the examples given for the Rochester City School District, simply speak for themselves when addressing the issue of de facto segregation in the Rochester City School District. They show very well how a student's socio-economic class results in segregation of schools. Those of lower socio-economic status remain in the city since this is where the low-income housing is concentrated, as Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee (2005), both of Harvard University, confirm in their study, "Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and Educational Inequality." But why is it that it is primarily the black population that is of this status? Although it may be because people like to reside in a community that shares many similarities with them, it is also because, throughout history, blacks have not been given the same or equal opportunities that whites have been given. This forms a chain reaction that is being passed down through the generations of black families. Students may be influenced by the poor experiences their parents have had and the lack of hope and determination that their parents have experienced and because of these negative experiences they will follow in their footsteps.

To look at this issue from the side of the white majority, the white students of Monroe County are segregated also, possibly even more so than the black students, as shown by the percentages (Orfield and Lee, 2005). This segregation of both the white and black student populations only leads the students into issues of compromising the quality of their education. With the lack of diversity, students are not able to hear or see opposing views to topics discussed in their classes. Students will only learn and reinforce their own views, then, without the discussion of the differing views and their education will thus be deprived of an experience that could be a very valuable one.

The next issue to address now is what can be done to fix this problem that is continuing to worsen in Monroe County. I think one of the best solutions to solving this problem is to restructure Monroe County so that there is deliberately mixed populations of white, black, lower and higher socio-economic statuses in each school district. Another solution would be to provide transportation, or public school buses, for students so that they would be able to attend schools outside of the city. Yet another solution that could be followed would be to build low-income housing in the suburbs and lower the costs of living there so that many black families could move out of the crowded city and into the suburbs. Progress becomes blocked with another problem here though. In Monroe County, low-income housing is only permitted in the suburban area with permission of the particular neighborhood where officials desire to build the housing. Many readers may not like to admit it, but the likelihood of the suburban areas granting permission to build low-income housing in the neighborhoods is very slim.

Currently, however, in the city of Rochester, students must attend the school that is in the area in which their parents reside. This means that they are not given the option of attending or being able to have a choice about which schools they would like to attend (Morse, 2004). If this rule were changed, I think that it would have the biggest and most positive effect on the districts and racial populations of the schools in this area. The students who are in the high schools now are the people that in several years will be helping to make decisions for this country and shaping it. Shouldn't New York allow them to get the best educational opportunity they can? I believe that if this were done, it would have a chain reaction on all of the schools in the Rochester City School District. If the school board of the Rochester district saw that enrollment in the Rochester City schools was dropping because more students were choosing to go to the suburban schools to obtain better learning opportunities, the Rochester City Schools would be challenged to improve their own school programs to keep their enrollment up, thus eventually improving all of the schools.

Education for blacks in the United States started with segregation. Is it going to end with segregation also? The segregation that the black population of students and their families are dealing with now may be of a slightly different nature in that it is a result of socio-economic status and district perimeter formations, but this does not mean that we can stand back and allow it to pass. I strongly feel that actions need to be taken to reshape the Monroe County school districts in particular. When this is done, all students will have a higher quality education that comes from all areas, including books, teachers, and especially their new peers and diversity experiences.




Johnson, Mayor William. "Keynote Address: 50 Years After Brown." With All Deliberate Speed: Where Do

We Stand 50 Years After Brown? Conference. State University of New York College at Geneseo,

Geneseo, NY, 18 Sept. 2004.

Morse, Dr. Jane F. "Panel Discussion: 50 Years After Brown." With All Deliberate Speed: Where Do We Stand

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"New York State District Report Card Comprehensive Information Report: Rochester City School District."

Chart. 10 Mar. 2004. New York State Education. 27 Oct. 2004.


"New York State School Report Card Comprehensive Information Report: Gates-Chili High School." Chart.

10 March 2004. New York State Education. 2 Nov. 2004.


"New York State School Report Card Comprehensive Information Report: John Marshall High School." Chart.

10 March 2004. New York State Education. 27 Oct. 2004.


"New York State School Report Card Comprehensive Information Report: Lewis H. Morgan Elementary

School." Chart. 10 March 2004. New York State Education. 27 Oct. 2004.


Orfield, Gary and Chungmei Lee. "Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and Educational Inequality." The

Harvard Civil Rights Project. Harvard U.Jan.2005.


"Rochester City School District Map." Map. Rochester City School District. 28 Oct. 2004


Tozer, Steven E., Paul C. Violas, and Guy Sense. "School and Society: Historical and Contemporary

Perspectives." 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. 154-9, 237.


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