Cumming v. Board of Education of Richmond County

At issue in Cumming v. Board of Education of Richmond County (1899) was whether denying a high school education to African American students was a “clear and unmistakable disregard of rights” (p. 545) in violation of their constitutional protections under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The board of education had decided to discontinue high school services for 60 African American students in order to provide education for 300 African American students who attended elementary schools, and the Supreme Court upheld its action.

Cumming and the accompanying judicial analyses reflect the difficult struggle that African American students experienced as they sought to obtain the constitutionally protected rights to equal protection in education. Fifty-five more years would pass before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) began to rectify this situation by opening an era of equal educational opportunities.

Facts of the Case

In 1880, the board of education in Richmond County, Georgia, established Ware High School for African American students and charged tuition of $10. In 1897, a special committee recommended that for economic reasons the high school be closed and converted into four elementary schools. The board made this recommendation based on its assertion that the students could have obtained a public education at the Haines Industrial Institute, the Walker Baptist Institute, or the Payne Institute for a fee no greater than that charged by Ware High School.

When African American parents objected to the board’s closing the high school, a trial court refused to grant an injunction against the tax collector. While the court did issue an order restraining the board of education from expending any of the tax funds, it suspended its directive until the Supreme Court of Georgia could render a decision on the issues. The high court then dissolved the injunction, reversed in favor of the board, and dismissed the parents’ petition.

The court explained that the parents had not pointed out specifically what parts of the Fourteenth Amendment the school board violated. If anything, the court was convinced that the board had not violated the Fourteenth Amendment at all. Although the board did devote some of the school taxes that it collected to support a high school for White girls and a denominational high school for boys, the court was of the opinion that insofar as it had not established a high school for White boys, it did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court’s Ruling

On further review, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in favor of the school board. The Court began by analyzing Article 8, Section 1 of the Constitution of the State of Georgia, which required local boards to provide a thorough system of elementary schools for English education. The provision added that these schools had to be supported by tax funds. In light of this language, the Court believed that the board made a nondiscriminatory decision to provide education for 300 elementary students in lieu of offering a secondary education for 60 high school students. The Court quickly pointed out that the affected secondary school students could still have received an education in private schools for tuition that was no greater than they already were paying at Ware High School.

The Court concluded its analysis by deferring to the power of the states to determine who should be educated in the schools provided that the benefits of taxation are shared by all without any discrimination. Absent a clear violation of rights, the Court did not think that federal authorities had the authority to interfere in the operation of the schools.

Not surprisingly, Cumming was resolved after Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which introduced the notion of “separate but equal” into the national legal lexicon by upholding the requirement of such facilities for Whites and African Americans in public railway accommodations. Insofar as Georgia’s constitution only provided for a system of elementary schools, and the board charged tuition at Ware High School, Tubman High School, and Richmond Academy, the Supreme Court agreed with the board’s action in closing the school as a temporary measure based on economic necessity.

J. Patrick Mahon

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Equal Educational Opportunities; Civil Rights Movement; Equal Protection Analysis; Fourteenth Amendment; Plessy v. Ferguson

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