Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (1899)

In Klarman’s book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New York, 2004), the case Cumming v Richmond County Board of Education (1899) is identified as “[t]he Plessy era Court’s only case involving racial inequality in education…” (45). The decision, written by Justice John Harlan, allowed Richmond county to continue to pay for a whites-only high school, and set a precedent for segregation and educational disenfranchisement that lasted over half a century.  The decision reached in this case was only overturned by the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education of Topeka (1954).

Justice John Marshall Harlan

Justice John Marshall Harlan. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The case was part of a sweeping movement across the South to disenfranchise African Americans following the end of the Civil War. The case Plessy v Ferguson (1896), which created the concept of ‘separate but equal’, had broad implications to re-segregate African Americans in the South. The school system was a particular target of this re-segregation.  Klarman writes that “[t]he temptation to “rape the Negro School fund” was great and seldom resisted” (45). Southern school districts immediately made efforts to treat black students as poorly as possible, and to keep blacks out of school as much as possible.Some school districts split the tax money based on how much each racial group contributed. Since blacks could only find poor paying jobs, the schools their taxes paid for were not equal to those of white parents. The segregation of Southern schools was key aspect to the South’s attempt to disenfranchise black citizens.

It was under these conditions that Cumming v Richmond County Board of Education (1899) began. The plantiffs, J.W. Cumming, James S. Harper, and John C. Ladeveze argued that the school district had used its funds to create and maintain an all white high school, but had not maintained a high school for black pupils. On July 10th, 1897, the school board began to deny the right of African Americans to attend high school within the county.  As a result, the plaintiffs believed that the school district violated the “separate but equal” aspect of the Plessy v Ferguson case.  A junction was issued, which claimed that the petitioners did not object to the tax for the elementary and middle school, which still existed, but objected to paying for a whites-only high school.

Though there is little information available for the plaintiffs, their lawyer is well known: George Edmunds, who was born in Virginia but grew up in Vermont, was an antislavery Whig. He served in the Vermont Senate and House before joining the Senate. Throughout his career, he fought for the equality of African Americans. An interesting dissertation, available on JSTOR, on Edmunds was written in 1934 by Selig Adler, a student at the University of Illinois.

Joseph Ganahl and Frank H. Miller both argued for the defense. Very little information is available about them. Joseph Ganahl was the Chairman of the high school committee and the board’s lawyer, according to the Journal of Southern History, Vol. 46, No. 1. In 1915, he was admitted to the Georgia Bar Association. There is no significant biographical information on Miller.

The case was first heard in the Trial Court of Richmond. On December 22, 1897, Judge Callaway of Richmond County heard the case, and ruled for the plaintiffs. The school board immediately appealed the case and sent it to Georgia’s Supreme Court, where the ruling was reversed.  On March 23, 1898, Justice Simmons of the Georgia Supreme court, made a ruling that took Plessy v Ferguson one step further, by claiming that it was acceptable to create separate and unequal facilities for black students.  The plaintiffs appealed and the case went to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The hearing in front of the Supreme Court began on 30 October, 1899, and ended on the 18th of December.  Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, the spirit of Reconstruction, and the call for blacks to be educated, had died long before their case came to court. After the Civil War ended, the education of blacks became a vital issue for Republican leaders, who forced Southern states to write educational rights into their state constitutions. As time went on and Reconstruction ended, a growing number of southerners argued against the idea of blacks receiving an education. As such, the verdict handed down by the Supreme Court was consistent with most Supreme Court rulings since Plessy. In a 9-0 decision, the Court upheld the ruling of the Georgia Supreme Court, and allowed the county of Richmond to continue to provide whites only education without separate facilities for blacks.

Justice Harlan, the only dissenting justice in Plessy, wrote for the court.. He accepted that the state had suspended black education for economic and not racist reasons, and in doing so provided a clear loophole for the South to segregate its education system as it saw fit. There are two relatively recent biographies on Harlan from the 1990s. The most recent is Insley E. Yarbrough, Judicial Enigma: The First Justice Harlan (1995). An earlier one is Loren P. Beth, John Marshall Harlan: The Last Whig Justice (1992).

Other Justices serving on the court at the time were: Chief Justice Melville Fuller, David Brewer, Henry Brown, George Shiras, Edward White, Rufus Peckham, Joseph McKenna, and Horace Gray. They all sided with the Richmond County School District.

There is a significant amount of information available about Cumming in literature. The book Separate But Not Equal: The Supreme Court’s first decision on discrimination in schools by J. Morgan Kousser (1978), gives a detailed account of the case. Additionally, Benno C. Schmidt’s article Principle and Prejudice: The Supreme Court and Race in the Progressive Era. Part 1: The Heyday of Jim Crow is available on JSTOR. Finally, James D. Anderson’s The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 gives an overview of black education from the Civil War to the Great


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Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (1899) — 1 Comment

  1. That’s quite a lot of references. Would take me tons of time to go through several interesting and revolutionary judgments and the way the judicial system is setup.

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