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Briggs v. Elliott

Briggs v. Elliott
Decided January 28, 1952
Full case name Harry Briggs, Jr. et al. v. R.W. Elliott, chairman, et al.
Citations 342 U.S. 350 (more)
Prior history
  • June 23, 1951: Injunction to abolish segregation denied, injunction to equalize educational facilities granted (2–1), 98 F. Supp. 529 (E.D.S.C. 1951)
Subsequent history
  • March 13, 1952: Judgment reinstated (3–0), 103 F. Supp. 920 (E.D.S.C. 1952)
  • May 17, 1954: Reversed and remanded (9–0), sub. nom. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
  • July 15, 1955: Decree entered, voiding South Carolina school segregation law as unconstitutional, and ordering schools integrated with all deliberate speed consistent with Brown (3-0), 132 F. Supp. 776 (E.D.S.C. 1955)
In order that the Supreme Court may have the benefit of the views of the district court upon the additional facts brought out in the appellees report on implementation of district court's mandate to equalize segregated South Carolina schools, and that the district court may have the opportunity to take whatever action it may deem appropriate in light of that report, the judgment is vacated and the case is remanded for further proceedings.
Case opinions
Per curiam.
Dissent Black, joined by Douglas
Laws applied
28 U.S.C. (Supp. IV) § 1253, S.C. Const., Art. XI, § 7; S.C. Code § 5377 (1942)

Briggs v. Elliott, 342 U.S. 350 (1952), on appeal from the U.S. Eastern District of South Carolina, was the first of the five cases combined into Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the famous case in which the U.S. Supreme Court officially overturned racial segregation in U.S. public schools. The case challenged segregation in Summerton, South Carolina. In this particular U.S. District Court case, a three-judge panel originally found segregation lawful, with one dissent, but granted an injunction to equalize the uncontested inferiority of the schools used by African American students. Before merging this case with Brown, the Supreme Court first reversed and remanded this case to the district court to consider a report on the progress of equalization. The district court reinstated its previous judgment; however, once Brown was decided, the lower court reversed itself and complied with the mandate issued by the Supreme Court in Brown. With that, the district court issued a decree voiding South Carolina law requiring racial segregation in school as unconstitutional, and requiring that state's schools to integrate.


  • Background 1
  • Decision 2
  • Outcomes 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5


Educational segregation in the US prior to Brown

At the time Brown reached the U.S. Supreme Court, South Carolina was one of 17 states that required school segregation. South Carolina law required incomplete segregation. Article 11, Section 7 of the 1895 Constitution of South Carolina read as follows: "Separate schools shall be provided for children of the white and colored races, and no child of either race shall ever be permitted to attend a school provided for children of the other race." Section 5377 of the Code of Laws of South Carolina of 1942 read: "It shall be unlawful for pupils of one race to attend the schools provided by boards of trustees for persons of another race."

No one questioned that the Clarendon County schools were unequal. At the beginning of the hearings in U.S. District Court, the defendants admitted upon the record that "the educational facilities, equipment, curricula and opportunities afforded in School District No. 22 for colored pupils are not substantially equal to those afforded for white pupils."

The case began in 1947 as a request to provide bus transportation. In addition to having separate and very inferior facilities, black children had to walk to school, sometimes many miles. In the neighboring Jordan community, some children walked as many as 18 miles round-trip to school each day, and children had to frequently gather wood for heaters within schools.[1] Knowing this, Summerton residents Harry and Eliza Briggs joined with 21 other families to find a school bus suitable for their children, but frequent maintenance led them to ask the local school superintendent, R.M. Elliott, for their own bus.[2] Surmising that the white children rode buses—the white schools in Clarendon County used 33 buses at the time for white students—the Briggs family and many others contended black students could have at least one. Elliott refused, saying black citizens did not pay enough taxes to warrant a bus and that asking white taxpayers to fund that burden would be unfair.[2][3]

In 1949 the NAACP agreed to provide funding and sponsor a case that would go beyond transportation and ask for equal educational opportunities in Clarendon County. The first step was to craft a local petition for educational equality. This was done by Rev. Joseph Armstrong De Laine and Modjeska Monteith Simkins, the noted South Carolina civil rights worker. Simkins organized a national charitable effort for the relief of the oppressed blacks of Clarendon County. Eventually, more than 100 Clarendon residents signed the petition.

Named first in the suit, Harry, a service station attendant, and Eliza, a maid, became the main named plaintiffs. Elliott was named the defendant.

De Laine was a teacher at a local school in Silver and was soon fired. His wife Mattie was also fired from her position at Scott's Branch, as were all the other signers. The Briggses both immediately lost their jobs. Mr. Briggs relocated to Florida for the next ten years to support the family. De Laine also relocated to New Jersey, and his family home in Clarendon County was burned twice.[2]


In 1952 the Supreme Court heard the case and returned it to the district court for rehearing after Clarendon County school officials sent a report on progress in making facilities equal. In March the district court again heard the case. The Court found that progress had been made towards equality. Thurgood Marshall argued that this may be true, but that the real issue was that as long as separation existed, the schools would be unequal. So the case was appealed back up to the Supreme Court in May.

Originally litigated by NAACP lawyer Robert L. Carter, the Briggs case was notable for introducing into evidence the experiments of Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who used dolls to study children's attitudes about race. Under tests performed by Clark, black students in segregated schools were shown a white doll and a black doll and asked which one they preferred. When a majority of black students indicated their preference for the white doll, Clark concluded that segregated schooling decreased black self-esteem.


Although Brown resulted in a legal victory for the NAACP, it was a hollow victory for those associated with Briggs. Reverend Joseph De Laine, the generally acknowledged leader of Summerton's African-Americans at the time, had his church burned and he moved to New York City in 1955 after surviving an attempted drive-by shooting. Harry and Eliza Briggs, on behalf of whose children the suit was filed, lost their jobs. Harry spent more than a decade working in Florida to support the family. Eliza eventually joined her children in New York.

Eventually, the State of South Carolina awarded Eliza Briggs its highest civilian honor, the Order of the Palmetto. Reverend Joseph A. De Laine, Harry and Eliza Briggs, and Levi Pearson were awarded Congressional Gold Medals posthumously in 2003. [2].

See also

  • List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 342
  • Full Text of Decision on
  • Good background with bibliography related to the case at The University of South Carolina-Aiken via
  • Briggs Petition Petition of Harry Briggs, et al., to the Board of Trustees for School District No. 22. 11 November 1949. Clarendon County Board of Education, L14167. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina.
  • Bernstein, Alice The People of Clarendon County (2007 - ISBN 0883782871),
  • Summerton High School


  1. ^ Baker, Robert J. Jordan Elementary School an empty, silent testament to unequal school facilities. "The Item. Feb. 23, 2011.
  2. ^ a b c Baker, Robert J. Briggs v. Elliott: Summerton schools still mostly segregated. "The Item." Feb. 23, 2011
  3. ^ T. Woods, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, p. 196
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