Attorney George Mills called on the jury to decide an issue of segregation in the Carlisle school district.
He wanted them to see Edward Brown as a black child who was refused admission to a high school for white students that once stood on the northwest corner of West North and North Pitt streets.
Lawyers for the district argued the refusal had nothing to do with race. That Brown and his mother had failed to follow the procedure necessary for a student to be approved for a transfer between buildings.
It was Feb. 8, 1897, in the Old Courthouse on the Square. Fifty-seven years before the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, Carlisle had to contend with its own Brown vs. Board of Education.
The more famous case involved the school board of Topeka, Kansas, and ruled unconstitutional state laws protecting the racial segregation of children in public schools. The unanimous decision became a cornerstone of the civil rights movement and helped to establish that precedent that “separate but equal education” and other services were not equal at all, according to www.history.com.
The Carlisle case began in September 1896 when Mary Brown asked a committee of black men to get her son, Edward, into the white school. Calvin Abel, Robert Young and John Butcher were chosen to represent the black community at a Sept. 7 school board meeting where they presented a petition.
Their goal was to call to the board’s attention the inequalities that existed in the grading, curriculum and location of school buildings within the district. They mentioned that “increased advantages” provided to students at the white high school were not being provided to students at the black high school.
There was also the issue of safety since the school for black children was located in Jail Alley “in the worst neighborhood of the town,” the petition reads. The three men asked that Edward Brown, Hattie Butcher, Priscilla Young and Naomi Jordan be admitted to the white high school.
In 1985, David Strausbaugh wrote a research paper offering a detailed analysis of the Mary E. Brown vs. Carlisle School Board case. He noted that a segregated education for blacks had been provided since the inception of the Carlisle school district in 1836. Back then the district only included the town.
The first school for blacks in Carlisle was in an African Methodist Church and was taught by one teacher, according to Strausbaugh. Education for blacks progressed slowly until 1877 when a committee of black citizens appeared before the school board and asked for better facilities and advanced studies.
In July 1878, Carlisle introduced three levels of schooling for black students – primary, intermediate and high school. Three years later, in 1881, the state General Assembly passed a bill abolishing distinctions of race or color in public schools, but did not end segregation because it offered no penalty for offenders.
The Supreme Court in 1896, in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, ruled that racially segregated public facilities were legal, so long as the facilities for blacks and whites were equal. That decision established the “separate but equal” doctrine that was challenged and reversed by the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.
Wanted: Similar schools
Closer to home, Young told the Carlisle school board during the September meeting the black families would be satisfied to have their four children stay in the segregated school if similar facilities were provided in terms of course offerings. Superintendent S. B. Shearer said the only difference was the white school offered students courses in Latin and Geometrical Drawing.
In a subsequent story, The Sentinel wrote about an interview a staff reporter had with an unnamed member of the committee of black men. The newspaper learned the black community thought the segregated school system was not advanced enough and did not carry their children as far as the white students.
“They think their schools should be used as preparatory, and their children should finish up in the other high school,” the story reads.
The school board Sept. 7 considered the petition and approved a resolution that authorized Shearer to admit black students to the white school “if such admission is demanded.” The resolution acknowledged that denying admission could violate the law and could endanger the state appropriation to Carlisle school district.
On Oct. 14, 1896, Mary Brown filed a lawsuit in Cumberland County court asking a judge to compel the school district to allow her son to attend the white high school. At the time, mother and son lived in the 100 block of West North Street just west of the intersection of where the school was located.
“Edward Brown applied on the first day of the present school term for admission to the school building ... but was refused,” the lawsuit reads. “That application was made to Superintendent Shearer, Principal Cross and the board and each and all refused to admit him.” Yet the 1881 law was clear that no distinction could be made to race or color.
Focus on procedure
Even though Mary Brown through her attorney wanted to argue that race was the reason why her son was denied admission, the court in its pre-trial rulings sided with the school district and focused the attention of the case on whether mother and son had followed proper procedures.
“In the lobbying to frame an issue, the school board succeeded in annulling the main allegation of the Browns,” Strausbaugh wrote in his paper. “[The] focus would not be on the racial policies of the Carlisle School District, but rather on whether an application had been made to the school board.”
That did not stop George Mills from opening his case on Feb. 8, 1897, with an appeal to jurors to consider whether Edward Brown was denied admission because of his race. But Mary Brown admitted under oath that she had not approached the board to make a request in person.
Calvin Abel told jurors that Mary Brown had authorized the committee to try to get her son into the white high school. The men first went to the school principal who directed them to Superintendent Shearer who directed them, in turn, to petition the school board on Sept. 7.
After the meeting, the committee went to Shearer a second time who deferred them to the board secretary or president. Board secretary C.P. Humrich testified at the trial that all admissions to the high school that involved the transfer of students from one building to another had to be made directly to the board. That did not happen in the case of Edward Brown.
In legal terms, Mary Brown had petitioned the court for a writ of mandamus to require the district to admit her son to the white high school. Judge Edward Biddle, who presided over the February 1897 trial, ordered the jury after testimony was over to find for the school board and superintendent. The Sentinel reported on the rationale behind his instructions to the jury.
“There was no positive application to the board for his [Edward Black’s] transfer,” Biddle wrote “If such application had been made, the board was not compelled to grant it unless they believed it was for the child’s welfare.” Lastly, Biddle did not believe the trial testimony warranted the issuance of a mandamus.
David Kates wrote a paper titled “Segregation and Equality: A Study of the Carlisle Public School System.” In it, he mentioned that the Wilson School building on the corner of Pitt and North streets was originally built to house the boys and girls white high school. By fall 1927, four black grammar school classes from the Lincoln building and one black grammar school class from the “Old College” Building in Liberty Alley were transferred to Wilson.
The old Wilson building then became the only all-black public school in Carlisle. The segregation of public high schools in Carlisle ended in 1919-1920 while the segregation of elementary schools ended in 1948-1949, according to gardnerlibrary.org – an online resource maintained by the Cumberland County Historical Society.