The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Bolling v. Sharpe (District of Columbia)

Free public schools for the black children of Washington, DC were established in 1874. It was a radical notion for the times, as nowhere else in the South were such schools available. They were segregated, but initially the schools were close to equal to the white schools in the District.

But by the 1930s, the condition of the schools had changed dramatically. Faced with deplorable conditions for their children, several black parents challenged the District's system of school segregation. Their case, Bolling v. Sharpe, was decided along with Brown v. Board of Education.


While the black schools of the District were originally designed to be of equal quality to the white schools, little was done to ensure that they kept up with the times. By the 1930s, the veneer of equality was gone. There had been a huge influx of blacks into the District, but the Board of Education chose not to build new schools to accommodate the increased population. The situation continued to deteriorate through the 1940s.

The Bolling case began in 1949, when a group of African American parents from the Anacostia neighborhood sought to have their children admitted to the soon-to-be-opened John Phillip Sousa Junior High School. The school board denied their petition and despite having empty classroom space available, opened Sousa as an all-white segregated school.

On behalf of the parents and children, including Spottswood Bolling, for whom the case is named, James Nabrit and the NAACP sued for admission to Sousa.

The Bolling case was unique for two reasons. First, the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment only applied to state laws, not the federal law that mandated segregated schools in the District.

Second, even though the segregated schools the plaintiffs were forced to attend were vastly inferior to the new all-white Sousa school, no evidence of inequality was presented to the court. The plaintiffs' only argument was that the principle of "separate but equal" was itself unconstitutional, even if the separate facilities were of equal quality.

On May 17th, the same day as the decision in the other Brown cases, the Supreme Court agreed that segregation itself was unconstitutional. Specifically, the Court ruled that African American children in the District were being denied due process of the law as guaranteed under the 5th amendment because there was no legitimate government purpose to assign school attendance based on race.

In the other cases, the Court ruled that separate schools were inherently unequal and therefore a violation of the 14th amendment's equal protection clause.

After Brown

Without the strategy of "massive resistance" practiced by several southern state and local governments, the District of Columbia schools integrated relatively quickly. While this was a tremendous victory for African Americans in the District, it may have been a pyrrhic one.

Ironically, when it opened, Sousa was a segregated school with no minority students; today, it is a segregated school again, only now it is attended by all minority students. With "white flight" from the District, the concentration of white District residents in Northwest, and attendance rates at private and parochial schools, every one of Sousa's 365 students in 2000 was African American.

A Snapshot of the District

More broadly, the District's public school enrollment is approximately 85% African American, 9% Hispanic and only 4% non-Hispanic White. This despite the fact that Whites make up 28% of the District's population.

Despite the fact that African American and Hispanic students make up the vast majority of the District's student body, minority students still receive a distressingly small share of academic opportunities. The District offers fewer of its students the opportunity to take academic enrichment courses than the national average. Where the District does provide math and science advanced placement classes, those opportunities are vastly more likely to go to white students.

Take together, the chart shows that White students in the District are 14 times as likely to have the opportunity to take math AP courses than Black and Hispanic students; and almost 8 times as likely to have the opportunity to take science AP classes.

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