The relevance of Brown? Racial justice in the postwar urban north

Abigail Perkiss from Kean University in Union, New Jersey looks at how the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision led to an end to racial inequity in public schools in the north.

The Warren Court, which decided the case
The Warren Court, which decided the case

The Warren Court, which decided the case

Sixty years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Brown v. Board of Education, a unanimous bench overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that had proclaimed “separate but equal” the governing law on race relations.

As chief justice Earl Warren wrote, “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of children to learn. Segregation with sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.”

“We conclude,” continued Warren, “that in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

The Brown decision had profound effects on the legal status of African Americans in the United States. The 1954 decision formed the basis for a significant reorientation of public space, particularly in the Jim Crow South, where separate facilities had become the de facto and de jure norm through the first half of the twentieth century.

But even as Brown remade the legal landscape of public education in the American South, in the urban north, schools witnessed a rapid expansion of racial inequity in the decades following the Second World War.

As Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal wrote in his 1944 tome, An American Dilemma, the absence of legal barriers to equality sheltered northern whites from the realities of racial inequality in American cities.

Laid out in 1,024 pages of text and 258 pages of citations, Myrdal’s work called on Americans to redeem the character of the country by repairing the disconnect between the American Dream and the reality of race relations. According to the scholar, this break between the historical ideals of the nation and the reality of racial prejudice was creating pervasive moral angst in U.S. society.

As Myrdal wrote, northern whites had been able to distance themselves from racial prejudice, making them reluctant to confront the discriminatory practices and policies that created and fostered separation and inequality in their own communities.

World War II had created unparalleled economic opportunities for African Americans across the country, bringing a surge of black families to the nation’s urban spaces. In Philadelphia, for instance, nearly 50,000 blacks moved to the city between 1941 and 1943. Even after the war ended, African Americans continued to arrive; from 1940 to 1950, the city’s black population swelled from 251,000 to 376,000.

This influx of people, combined with a wartime reallocation of resources that halted residential construction, quickly created an acute housing shortage. And once production restarted after the war, the housing market was unable to keep up with increased demand.

By 1946, 17 percent of the city’s residential units were in deteriorating condition, with 65,000 families living communally in units meant for single-family occupancy. The vacancy rate in Philadelphia was near non-existent, hovering between 0.5 and 1 percent. Old city neighborhoods were ready to burst.

At the same time, with expanding job opportunities and postwar legal reforms, a new black middle class began to emerge. These upwardly mobile African Americans began to push outward, seeking to escape the overcrowding of the inner-cities.

These swift demographic changes created intense anxieties within communities, where white homeowners believed that both their property values and their ways of life were being jeopardized by the influx of black residents.

In many middle-class communities, white homeowners responded to these shifts by fleeing these transitioning areas for the expanding all-white suburbs. Realtors were quick to capitalize on white fears of instability. When a black family attempted to purchase a house in a previously all-white area, “blockbusting” agents worked to instill a sense of panic in the community by warning homeowners of the risk of property depreciation and violence. These techniques had the effect of encouraging white flight, as entire neighborhoods sold their homes to incoming black families.

Corrupt realtors profited from the transition by undervaluing the original sales and then marking up prices for prospective black buyers. Often, these areas tipped from exclusively white to predominantly black in just a few short years.

In Philadelphia, between 1950 and 1960, some 700,000 white home buyers moved from the city to the surrounding suburbs. These suburbs came to represent safety, stability, modernity, and autonomy. But they represented something insidious as well: a new incarnation of residential exclusion, the post-war embodiment of racial separation.

And as middle-class families moved to suburbs, they withdrew critical resources from city institutions, including public schools. Subsidized in part by the municipal property taxes, as housing values depreciated neighborhood schools saw funding decrease sharply.

As one community organization wrote to the Philadelphia School District in 1963, without the resources necessary to keep their schools competitive with the adjacent suburbs, “the Board of Education will witness an extension of the creeping process of social and economic blight, overcrowding of housing, overcrowding of schools, and decrease in tax values of real estate on which the school income is derived.”

For many in northern cities, education had become the terrain upon which the fight for racial justice was being fought. Even absent the legal restrictions that Chief Justice Marshall had, in Brown, argued were so critical to education quality and achievement, disinvestment persisted and urban schools were transformed into sites of hostility and violence.

By the mid-1970s, the Philadelphia School District saw a marked declined in elementary school enrollment, from over 171,000 in 1968 to less than 143,500 in 1975. At the same time, educational and residential resegregation rates climbed, aided by racial strife, budgetary crises, and teacher strikes.

Gunnar Myrdal’s critique had been realized; absent the legal restrictions that had been governing race relations in the American South, northerners were experiencing the destruction of these key public institutions, so critical to the opportunity structure of the American political and economic systems.

For further reading, see: Perkiss, Abigail. Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Postwar Philadelphia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014; Wolfinger, James. Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Abigail Perkiss is an assistant professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey and a fellow at the Kean Center for History, Politics, and Policy. Her first book, Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Post-War Philadelphia, examines this experience of interracial living in American cities.

Follow her on twitter at @abiperk and visit her website at

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