Skip Navigation

(A copyrighted publication of West Virginia Archives and History)

A West Virginia Dilemma: Martin v. Board of Education, 1896

By Douglas C. Smith

Volume 40, Number 2 (Winter 1979), pp. 158-163

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . . .
Declaration of Independence
, Paragraph 2

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States. . . .
Fourteenth Amendment, U.S. Constitution
, Section 1, 1868


In 1896 the United States Supreme Court and the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals handed down decisions that were to have important implications for the nation and the state. This brief essay will compare and contrast the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of May 18, 1896 and the Martin v. Board of Education decision of November 28, 1896. The Martin case remains virtually unknown. No standard works on West Virginia history or education cite the decision; yet it remains, along with numerous other tragic and obscure incidents, as part of the mosaic that is West Virginia history.

The period following the Civil War has been interpreted by C. Vann Woodward as an era in which significant achievements were made by blacks seeking legal and economic human rights. Blacks living in the South were encouraged to vote and white politicians tended to solicit their support. Numerous positions of political leadership were held by Negroes and not until the 1890s was segregation as it is defined today a normal part of American life.

Two important Supreme Court decisions, however, were handed down in this period that were to be precursors to the Plessy v. Ferguson edict. In 1873 the Slaughterhouse cases eventuated the nullification of the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Again in 1883 the Supreme Court, ruling on the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which guaranteed equal access to accommodations regardless of race, held that the Reconstruction Congress had overstepped its constitutional purview. The Court in this case stated that Congress when writing the Fourteenth Amendment had specifically referred to state discriminatory practices and not segregation practiced by individuals. Further, as both of these cases show, the United States Supreme Court of the 1870s and 1880s was more concerned with property and corporate rights than it was with human rights.

The Slaughterhouse and Civil Rights Cases of the post-Civil War period were only a preview to the major court decision of this era. In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark verdict on race relations, racial equality, and the status of the American Negro. Only the Dred Scott decision was more malign. In summary, the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was not negated in any way when a state required persons of African ancestry to be separated in public accommodations from persons of European ancestry. The decision created surprisingly little reaction in the black community, and northern whit intellectuals were generally silent on the matter. The decision was supported by individuals like the racist- intellectual Woodrow Wilson, political opportunists such as Tom Watson, and academicians, influenced by the new pseudoscience of intelligence assessment, who haunted the citadels of higher learning in the North.

Implicit in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of May 1896 was the idea that white people and black people are not equal in intelligence, ability, or potential. Presenting the majority decision for the Court was Justice Henry B. Brown; he was from Massachusetts (the home of William Lloyd Garrison and the center of the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement) but he wrote these words:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiffs' argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored races chooses to put that construction upon it. . . . The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislations, and that equal rights cannot be secured by the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. . . . Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts, or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other socially, the constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.

One detects in this the influence of the newly emerging fields of social psychology and judicial sociology.

The Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which formally legalized separate-but-equal accommodations for whites and blacks, in reality brought an apartheid society to America which was to exist until the 1950s. Some individuals positively disposed to the cause of racial equality look favorably upon Plessy v. Ferguson. Their rationale was that the Supreme Court, though it allowed states to forcibly separate the races, also required these states to establish equal accommodations for blacks in all taxpayer-related facilities. The separate-but-equal concept was never realized. Though blacks were segregated, the accommodations were seldom (if ever) equal.

On May 17 of 1954 the United States Supreme Court, hearing numerous briefs and relying on psychological and sociological studies, reversed Plessy v. Ferguson. The main sources that the Court relied on in developing its revolutionary stand were Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma, Kenneth B. Clark, Effects of Prejudice and Discrimination on Personality Development; and numerous other historical and sociological materials. Chief Justice Earl Warren, speaking for the full Court, stated:

In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back to 1868 when the amendment was adopted or even to 1896 when Plessy v. Ferguson was written. We must consider public education in its present place in American life throughout the Nation. Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws.

Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting inferiority. . . . Segregation with the 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 racially integrated school system. Whatever may have ben the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this is amply supported by modern authority.

Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other tangible factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority groups equal educational opportunity? We believe it does. In these days it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. To separate children from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The full significance of the Court's decision in this landmark case can hardly be overestimated. As Thomas R. Dye states: "More that any other single event, the decision inspired the social and political movement known as the `Negro revolution.'" This decision greatly speeded up the drive for equality. It gave legitimacy to Blacks' rejection of being second-class citizens, and it gave many Americans a legal basis for their desire for equality.

In West Virginia at about the same time that the separate-but- equal doctrine was becoming the law of the land, an interesting and revealing case was being reviewed by the State Supreme Court of Appeals.

Mr. Thomas Martin, a resident of Morgan County living in the Cacapon school district, had sought help from the state court to have his children admitted to public school. Martin's argument rested on these facts: 1) He and his family were citizens of the state; 2) they were residents and taxpayers in Morgan County; 3) he was of African-American descent; 4) he was the father of five children of school age; and 5) the board of education had made no provision, as was required by law, to develop the necessary facilities that would afford his children the benefits of a public school education. The Morgan County Board of Education had provided a common school known as "Camp Hill School," but because Martin's children were black they had been denied access to this facility. Martin requested that the State Supreme Court of Appeals review the Board of Education's decision and issue a mandamus to require admission of his school-age children to "Camp Hill," as he believed was required by law.

The question that the State Supreme Court of Appeals had to face was delicate: Was Article XII, Section 8 of the West Virginia Constitution of 1872 (which declared that "white and colored persons shall not be taught in the same school") repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Section one, or to any of the Reconstruction amendments?

The state court in its decision, written by Marmaduke H. Dent, ruled that "the only privilege that appears to be denied to colored children in this section is that of association with white children and vice versa." Judge Dent continues:

If it had required that they should be taught in the same school, then it would have been a compulsory infringement of the rights of both, but as it is now, it treats them both alike, and places them precisely on the same footing. It prevents the legislature and boards of education from infringing on the rights of both in compelling them to attend a common school, which might be highly detrimental to both and injurious to the school.

Judge Dent ends with a cliche that has become standard: "Social equality cannot be enforced by law." What Supreme Court Judge Marmaduke H. Dent lacked in wisdom he compensated for amply in circumlocution!

In ending, the court stated that the state constitution Article XII, Sect. 1 which separated the races in public school had dominance over the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the moral rights of a taxpaying citizen to afford his children any educational opportunity within the all-white school district.

In summing up this decision on the rights of Thomas Martin to gain for his children a common-school education, Judge Dent stated:

Petitioner's counsel insists that while this is the settled law, yet, because the legislature and the board of education had failed to make proper provision to afford equal facilities to colored children, that they are entitled to attend the school provided for white children, on equal terms. Such a determination would be, in effect, permitting the neglect of the legislature or board of education to abrogate the state Constitution, while it is the paramount duty of this Court to see that they obey it.

In reality, what the Court had done in its convoluted jargon was to say that if a Negro school did not exist in a given area of West Virginia, a black child could not attend the local white school even though the school board, the teacher, and local citizenry might approve.

Interestingly, the Court in its November decision did not cite the Plessy v. Ferguson case which had been decided about one-half year earlier. Perhaps the reason for this omission was that the United States Supreme Court decision the Court, though emphasizing separate, also ruled that equal accommodations were necessary for blacks.

A search by this writer and members of the WVU Law Library staff turned up no legal or historical evidence of further efforts on the part of Thomas Martin on behalf of his children. It was not until the late 1930s that the state's university and colleges began slow integration practices, and it was only after the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 that efforts were made to desegregate the public school system.

Gunnar Myrdal, in his seminal study on American race relations, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), stated:

The "American dilemma" . . . is the ever raging conflict between on the one hand the valuations preserved in the general plane which we shall call the "American Creed" where the American things, talks and acts under the influence of high rational and Christian precepts, and on the other hand, the valuations on specific plans of individual and group living, where personal and local interests, economic and social and sexual jealousies, considerations of community prestige and conformity, group prejudices against particular persons or types of people, all sorts of miscellaneous wants, impulses, and habits, dominate his outlook.

Perhaps this quote better than any other reflects the essential dichotomy that has historically jeopardized America's efforts to reach her highest level of ethical and moral development. The failure to reach a syncretistic mentality on race relations by the people of 1896 and the people of today is truly the American dilemma.

Editor's Note: Dr. Smith used the following source material in the writing of this essay:

Charles H. Ambler, A History of Education in West Virginia (Huntington: Standard Printing & Publishing Company, 1951).

Daniel M. Berman, It Is So Ordered (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966).

Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883).

Thomas R. Dye, The Politics of Equality (New York: the Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1971).

Martin vs. Board of Education, 42 W. Va. 514, 26 S.E. 348 (1896), and see West Virginia Reports, Vol. 42, Pg. 514, C.

Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. 2 Volumes (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1944).

Plessy vs. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).

Slaughterhouse Cases, 16 Wallace 36 (1873).

C. Vann Woodward, "Plessy vs. Ferguson," American Heritage: The Magazine of History (American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc., 1964).

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966).

West Virginia History Journal

West Virginia History Center

West Virginia Archives and History