Desegregation of Pennsylvania Schools
An event here in September 1880 led to the end of segregation by race in the state's public schools. At the South Ward schools, Elias Allen tried unsuccessfully to enroll his two children. He appealed to the Crawford County Court of Common Pleas, and Judge Pearson Church declared unconstitutional the 1854 state law mandating separate schools for Negro children. This law was amended, effective July 4, 1881, to prohibit such segregation. Photo by Kevin I. Pipp/Pipp Graphics & Design.

Twenty-six years after Governor William Bigler (1814–1880) signed Pennsylvania’s common school law on May 8, 1854, creating “separate schools for the tuition of negro and mulatto children,” an African American in Meadville, Crawford County, challenged the legislation. In September 1880, Elias H. Allen unsuccessfully attempted to enroll his two children in the community’s South Ward School. The following year he adamantly refused to send his son to an all-Black school to which the county’s school board had assigned him. 

Allen appealed to the Crawford County Court of Common Pleas and sued the Crawford County School Board, basing his case on the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. One of the Reconstruction Amendments ratified following the American Civil War, in July 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal protection of life, liberty, and property for all citizens: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without the process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

As early as 1881, Judge Pearson Chruch ruled against discrimination of African Americans. [From the Daily Tribune Republic]

Pearson Church (1838–1898), elected President Judge of the Thirteenth Judicial District in 1877, heard the case and agreed with Allen. He ruled that education was “property.” Church also believed the school for African Americans was unequal; the students met in one room instead of being taught by grades as in white schools. In addition, the school was located farther from the Allen home than white schools. The school board offered no constitutional challenge, merely asserting that under Pennsylvania’s most relevant law, the 1854 “Act for the regulation and continuance of a System of Education by Common Schools,” districts with twenty or more Black students could provide schools especially for them. Judge Church declared the state education act unconstitutional.

The General Assembly of Pennsylvania ended misinterpretation of the legislation by outlawing desegregation with an act entitled “A Further Supplement to the school law of this commonwealth and to abolish all distinction of race or color in the public schools thereof.” The bill—passed in the state senate by a vote of 30-6 and by the house with a vote of 109-25—made it “unlawful for any school director, superintendent or teacher to make any distinction whatever, in account of, or by reason of the race or color of any pupil or scholar in attendance upon, or seeking admission to, any public or common school, maintained wholly or in part under the school laws of this commonwealth.” Governor Henry M. Hoyt (1830–1892), in office from 1879 to 1883, signed the bill on June 8, 1881, amending the 1854 legislation.

Historians believe Allen attempted to enroll his children in Meadville's South Ward School. [Crawford County Historical Society]

Although the 1881 law legally ended segregation in Pennsylvania’s schools, it was largely ignored. As passions during the post-Civil War era cooled, local governments found ways to circumvent or ignore state and federal laws, including the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1887, the state legislature eventually passed an equal rights bill that prohibited segregation in public accommodations, but like the 1881 legislation, it was generally disregarded. It took nearly a century, until the 1970s, to desegregate schools in Pennsylvania, but discrimination in some areas continues to this day.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) erected a state historical marker commemorating the desegregation of the Keystone State’s schools in 2000 at the Second District School, 1216 South Main Street, in Meadville, the site of the original South Ward School.

The editor thanks Anne W. Stewart, historican of the Crawford County Historical Society, Meadville, for her generous assistance in providing information and images for this installment.


This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage.
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