“Separate but equal” was a legal doctrine that dominated race relations, and how they were viewed by the justice system in the United States, from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until the famous Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education overturned it in 1954. The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, in relevant part, that no state may deny the “equal protection of the laws” to any persons within its jurisdiction. After Reconstruction, the Southern states adopted policies of strict segregation of the races in public facilities like parks and schools, and later in public transportation.
The federal government adopted a policy of leaving the application of the 14th Amendment and the issue of segregation to the individual states. In 1890, the Congress explicitly endorsed segregation in the Morrill Act of 1890, which concerned federal funding for the land grant colleges established by the Morrill Act of 1862. The 1890 legislation denied funding to states which excluded students for race-based reasons, but provided that funding would be permitted if separate but equal colleges were established for “colored” students and the federal funds received were “equitably” divided between the two. The 17 states that had excluded black students promptly built “separate but equal” colleges for those students; most survive to this day and are collectively called “historically black colleges and universities.”
The practice in some states evolved from merely permitting segregation to requiring it. Louisiana, for example, imposed a standard of segregation in all places of public accommodation. In 1892, when Homer Plessy boarded a “whites only” railway car in New Orleans and subsequently refused to move to a “colored” car, he was arrested. The case Plessy v Ferguson reached the US Supreme Court, which ruled in 1896 that state-required segregation of the races was protected by the US Constitution as long as separate but equal facilities were provided.
Many states responded by enacting a series of progressively more oppressive segregation laws, effectively eliminating the legislative protections afforded former slaves during Reconstruction. Separate facilities were provided, but those provided for whites were demonstrably superior to those provided for non-whites. This situation continued to deteriorate for blacks throughout the first half of the 20th century.
The 1954 case Brown v Board of Education challenged the principle of “separate but equal,” and the plaintiffs went to great lengths to prove what the court ultimately declared in its unanimous decision overturning Plessy: “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The immediate effect of Brown was to begin the dismantling of the segregated school systems in those states where they existed. It would take ten years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 effectively repealed the Jim Crow laws of racial segregation and oppression that characterized much of the American South from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.