Historical Markers
Desegregation of Pennsylvania Schools Historical Marker
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Desegregation of Pennsylvania Schools

Lake Erie Region


Marker Location:
S. Main St., The Second District School, Meadville

Dedication Date:
May 12, 2000

Behind the Marker

General view of the school with students posing for a group photograph in front of school
Belle School, East Caln Township, Chester County, PA, circa 1890.
In 1881, Elias Allen of Meadville, Pennsylvania, refused to send his son to the all-black school to which the Crawford County school board had assigned him. Allen then sued the county, basing his court challenge on the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guaranteed equal protection of life, liberty, and property for all citizens. County Judge Pearson Church agreed: education was property, and the black school was unequal–all the students met in one room instead of being educated by grades as in the white school–and farther away from Allen's home. The school board offered no constitutional challenge, merely asserting that under Pennsylvania's most relevant law, passed in 1854, districts with twenty or more black students could provide separate schools for them.
Oil on canvas of Henry M. Hoyt.
Henry M. Hoyt, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1879-1883.

Later that same year, the Pennsylvania legislature put an end to any ambiguity by outlawing school segregation. The new law passed the state senate 36-0 and the house 109-25; governor Henry Martyn Hoyt signed it immediately. In 1882, the State Supreme Court then ruled against the Uniontown school board, which had assigned a black student to an all-black school it still maintained.

The law of 1881 and decision of 1882 put at least–and frequently at most–a pro forma, or legal, end to segregated schools in Pennsylvania. The following year, African Americans, organized for the most part by the State Equal Rights League, launched challenges to segregated schools in Allegheny City (now part of Pittsburgh), Reading, and Wilkes-Barre.

Pennsylvania's school desegregation campaign of the early 1880s took place at a time when racial segregation and discrimination were on the rise nationwide. As the passions of the Civil War cooled and white Americans sought the heeling of sectional wounds, state and local governments found ways to circumvent or ignore federal and state laws–and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution.
Boy's Central High School, Broad and Green Streets, Philadelphia, PA, circa...

In 1874, a Republican-sponsored desegregation bill, modeled on one proposed by Charles Sumner in the United States Senate at the same time, passed the Pennsylvania State Senate but died in the House. The Democrats, who took over both Congress and the state legislature in 1874, successfully used the same objections that segregationists would use in the 1960s: integrated schools would destroy the public-school systems because white taxpayers would pull out both their children and their tax dollars; antipathy between the races could not be changed through schools or laws; blacks received an education better suited to their supposedly limited abilities in segregated schools; and politicians only supported the measure to attract black voters. Many Republican politicians with few or no black constituents also favored the measure.

In 1887, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a state equal-rights bill outlawing segregation in public accommodations. In practice, however, this and the 1881 law outlawing school segregation were largely ignored. In Philadelphia, a few of the black students who qualified were admitted to Girls" and Central (boys) High Schools, but for the most part municipalities drew up school districts according to neighborhoods defined primarily in racial terms. Prominent educators, including Philadelphia school superintendent marker Martin Brumbaugh,who became governor of Pennsylvania in 1915, believed blacks and whites could both be educated best in segregated schools. Segregation persisted in many of the Commonwealth's schools until the 1970s, and for a variety of reasons continues to this day.
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