Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Berea College V. Commonwealth of Kentucky

211 US 45, 29 Sup. Ct. 33 (1908)


Amdt 14 - Rights of Citizens

Sec 1 - What is a Citizen of the United States

Art. 1 - Legislative Dept.

Sec 10 - Powers denied to the State

C. 1 - Obligation of Contracts

In the case of Berea College vs. Commonwealth of Kentucky, the Supreme Court found that a state statute prohibiting an educational corporation from giving desegregated instruction to whites and blacks was constitutional.

Berea College was a coeducational and non-denominational institution chartered by the state of Kentucky with a history of just under 100 years at the time of this historic case. The school admitted both white and black students and treated them without discrimination. In 1904 the legislature of Kentucky acted to create a statute that made it "unlawful for any person, corporation or association of persons to maintain or operate any college, school or institution where persons of the white and Negro races are both received as pupils for instruction." This statute also forbade any one institution from teaching the races in a segregated fashion unless the areas where the teaching was conducted were more than twenty five miles apart.

In response to this statute, Berea College argued that it had a right to teach students in a desegregated environment based on its right as a citizen and its property rights. However, the Supreme Court found that "the right to teach white and Negro children in a private school at the same time and place is not a property right." In fact, the court found that the corporation doesn't have the right to teach at all, and only has the rights that the state gives it by law. Further, the court indicated that a state may withhold powers from its corporations as it sees fit. The High Court also found that a corporation can not be classified as a citizen of the United States.

The case of Berea College vs. Commonwealth of Kentucky demonstrates the tendency to stress differences among peoples at the turn of the century in the United States. White males held a special place in society and certain rights were reserved for them only. Women were denied the vote, and the ability to do such things as smoke in public. This is also a time of great immigration from Europe. Ethnic slums were created in all the large urban centers where new arrivals toiled for little money and where children worked long hours in slave like conditions. It wasn't until 1908 when Congress passed a child labor law requiring the country to protect its youth from the horrors of the mines and sweat shops.

Despite education conditions that were less than favorable for all but a small percentage of people, the United States made great progress in literacy during this period. In 1900 illiteracy reached a new low of 10.7% of the population. This was down 2.6% from 1890 and 9.3% from 1870. By 1910 the illiteracy rate reached 7.7%. Even with this new low in illiteracy, less than 50% of the population over 25 years of age had acquired a grade school education, and around 4% of the population held college degrees. This time period also saw the beginnings of the first extensive public library system when Andrew Carnegie donated over 5 million dollars to start 39 branches of the New York Library System. Additionally, Booker T. Washington, a former slave, founded the first all-black college--the Tuskegee Institute--in Alabama in the early 1900s. Booker T. Washington favored working within the rules set by the white majority, and like many of his contemporaries, worked within the confines of segregation. In founding the Tuskegee Institute, Washington was not necessarily making a plea for equality among the races or for equal access to education. The figure of Booker T. Washington is often juxtaposed against another African-American of the same period, Frederick Douglass, who was willing to stand up to the white majority and demand equality for African-Americans.

Precedent events to the Berea College court case include the Dred Scott decision of 1857, wherein the Supreme Court determined that the Constitution never delineated citizenship for blacks and were therefore not eligible for citizenship. By 1868, with the passage of the 14th Amendment, blacks were finally given citizenship. Although the states, especially in the south, continued to discourage their black citizens from gaining an education, they could no longer make the education of a black citizen a punishable offence. Most states, and certainly all Southern States, discouraged or made it illegal to mingle the races through education. The segregation issue initially came to a head in the 1896 Supreme Court Case of Plessy v. Furguson, which affirmed the practice of the "separate but equal" doctrine.

Several subsequent cases continued to impact the issue of segregation in schools. After the Berea College court case, the case of Gong Lum v. Rice was tried in 1927. In this case, the court found that a Chinese girl could be considered colored for purposes of placement in a school. The Supreme Court began to shift with the case of Missouri Ex Rel Gaines v. Canada. Although the court still held on to the "separate but equal" doctrine, this 1938 decision found that a state must assure equal protection under the 14th Amendment, and therefore equal access to education. This decision determined that a state would have to pay to provide its black citizens with education outside the state if it did not have separate facilities for their education and was not willing to admit the black student into its white schools. After this decision, most states built separate facilities for specialized schools such as law schools. One state went as far as to create an entire school for one black student. One of the first cases to affirm any type of equality in education was the case of Alston v. School Board of the City of Norfolk. This 1940 case found that white and black public school teachers that were similarly qualified needed to be paid equal salaries. Another case of importance leading up to the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954--which found that separate was inherently not equal--was the case of Sweatt v. Painter. This 1950 decision found that facilities and services for a law school must truly be equal. This case finally began to examine the nature of equal education. Under this ruling the University of Texas Law School had to admit qualified black students because it was found that the state's law school for blacks was inferior. Even with the landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, desegregation of public schools in the United States took about a decade to institute. It took Federal troop intervention in some southern states to create desegregation. Even today, due to segregated living patterns, the public schools often can not be seen as completely integrated. Segregation continues to be a threat in the United States. Such legislative initiatives as California's Proposition 209, which makes affirmative action illegal in state institutions, lean towards once again creating an intentionally segregated society.

For More Information:
Berea College v. Commonwealth of Kentucky


Spurlock, Clark, Education and the Supreme Court. University of Illinois Press: Urbana, 1955.

Prepared by: Linda DeAngelo

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