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U.S. Supreme Court

Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education, 175 U.S. 528 (1899)

Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education

No. 184

Argued October 80, 1899

Decided December 18, 1899

175 U.S. 528


The plaintiffs in error complained that the Board of Education used the funds in its hands to assist in maintaining a highschool for white children, without providing a similar school for colored children. The substantial relief asked for was an injunction. The state court did not deem the action of the Board of Education in suspending temporarily and for economic reasons the highschool for colored children a sufficient reason why the defendant should be restrained by injunction from maintaining an existing highschool for white children. It rejected the suggestion that the Board proceeded in bad faith or had abused the discretion with which it was invested by the statute under which it proceeded, or had

Page 175 U. S. 529

acted in hostility to the colored race. Held that, under the circumstances disclosed, this Court could not say that this action of the state court was, within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, a denial by the state to the plaintiff's and to those associated with them, of the equal protection of the laws, or of any privileges belonging to them as citizens, of the United States.

While all admit that the benefits and burdens of public taxation must be shared by citizens without discrimination against any class on account of their race, the education of the people in schools maintained by state taxation is a matter belonging to the respective states, and any interference on the part of federal authority with the management of such schools cannot be justified except in the case of a clear and unmistakable disregard of rights secured by the supreme law of the land.

The plaintiffs in error, Cumming, Harper, and Ladeveze, citizens of Georgia and persons of color, suing on behalf of themselves and all others in like case joining with them, brought this action against the Board of Education of Richmond County and Charles S. Bohler, tax collector.

In the petition filed by them it was alleged --

That the plaintiffs were residents, property owners, and taxpayers of Richmond County, the defendant board being a corporation created under an act of the General Assembly of Georgia of August 23, 1872, regulating public instruction in that county empowering the board to annually levy such tax as it deemed necessary for public school purposes;

That on the 10th of July, 1897, the board levied for that year for the support of primary, intermediate, grammar, and highschools in the county, a tax of $45,000, which was then due and being collected;

That the petitioners interposed no objections to so much of the tax as was for primary, intermediate, and grammar schools, but the tax for the support of the system of highschools was illegal and void for the reason that that system was for the and benefit of the white population exclusively;

That the board was not authorized by law to levy any tax for the support of a system of highschools in which the colored school population of the county were not given the same educational facilities as were furnished the white school population;

That at least $4,500 of the tax of $45,000 was being collected,

Page 175 U. S. 530

and when collected would be used, for the support of such system of highschools:

That the board had on hand the sum of $20,000 or other large sum, the proceeds of prior tax levies, in trust to disburse solely for legal educational purposes in the county, and would receive from the tax levy of 1897 and from other sources large sums in like trust, and that it was the owner and had the custody and control of school fixtures, furniture, educational equipments and appliances generally, holding the same in like trust; and,

That although the board was not authorized by law to use any part of such funds or property for the support and maintenance of a system of highschools in which the colored school population were not given the same educational facilities as were furnished for the white school population, it was using such funds and property in the support and maintenance of its existing highschool system, the educational advantages of which were restricted wholly to the benefit of the white school population of Richmond County to the entire exclusion of the colored school population, and that, by such use of those funds and property, a deficiency for educational purposes would inevitably result, to make which good additional taxation would be required.

The petitioners also alleged that they were persons of color and parents of children of school age lawfully entitled to the full benefit of any system of highschools organized or maintained by the board; that up to the time of the said tax levy and for many years continuously prior thereto, the board maintained a system of highschools in Richmond County in which the colored school population had the same educational advantages as the white school population, but on July 10th, 1897, it withdrew from and denied to the colored school population any participation in the educational facilities of a highschool system in the county, and had voted to continue to deny to that population any admission to or participation in such educational facilities, and that, at the time of such withdrawal and denial, the petitioners respectively had children attending the colored highschool then existing, but who were

Page 175 U. S. 531

now debarred from participation in the benefits of a public highschool education though petitioners were being taxed therefor. They averred that the action of the board of education was a denial of the equal protection of the laws secured by the Constitution of the United States, and that it was inequitable, illegal, and unconstitutional for the board to levy upon or for the tax collector to collect from them any tax for the educational purposes of the county from the benefits of which the petitioners in the persons of their children of school age were excluded and debarred.

The petitioners prayed that the tax collector, Bohler, be enjoined from collecting so much of the tax levy of July 10th, 1897, as had been levied for the support of said system of highschools; that the board be enjoined from using any funds or property then held by it or thereafter to come into its hands for educational purposes in the county for the support, maintenance, or operation of that system, and that they have such other and further relief as was equitable and just.

The board of education demurred to the petition and also filed an answer. It denied that it had established any system of highschools in the county, and averred that it was neither its duty nor had it authority to establish such a system, although it had authority in its discretion to establish highschools at such points in the county as the interest or convenience of the people required; that in pursuance of such authority, it had established the Neely High School in 1876, but in 1878 its name was changed to that of the Tubman High School, when Mrs. Emily H. Tubman presented to the board a large lot and building for the purpose of affording a higher education to the young women of the county, the Richmond Academy affording this benefit and advantage to the male sex; that the demand was urgent for the continuance of the Tubman school by the board, and it was so accordingly determined, each pupil paying $15 for tuition per annum and nonresidents of the county forty dollars, which was the charge made by the Richmond Academy for Boys, and that the property, the value of which with the fixtures, furniture, and appliances was worth not less than $30,000, was

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donated by Mrs. Tubman upon the express condition that in the event the board failed to use the building for a highschool, the same was to inure instantly to the benefit of the Richmond Academy and the Augusta Free School;

That in June, 1876, the board deemed it wise to give its assistance to the Hephzibah High School, conducted and controlled by the Hephzibah Baptist Association in the village of Hephzibah, in the southeastern part of the county, charging and receiving for highschool scholars the sum of fifteen dollars per annum;

That, in 1880, there being no highschool in the county for the colored race, the funds of the board justifying it, and other schools of lower grade having been established by the local trustees in Augusta sufficient to accommodate the colored children, the board deemed it wise and proper to establish the Ware High School, charging for each pupil taught therein ten dollars per annum; and

That in June, 1897, a special committee appointed by the board investigated the status of the high schools in the county and ascertained the condition of each, and the committee recommended that, for "purely economic reasons in the education of the negro race," the Ware High School be discontinued and the city conference board requested to open four primary schools in the same building at a cost of about $200 each for the accommodation of those negro children who were annually denied admittance to the schools.

The answer of the board further stated:

"Touching the Ware High School, its friends and the colored patrons thereof were called before the committee, and were heard by the committee with every respect and consideration. They were told the reasons that controlled the committee in its intention to recommend its discontinuance for the present. These were: because four hundred or more of negro children were being turned away from the primary grades unable to be provided with seats or teachers; because the same means and the same building which were used to teach sixty highschool pupils would accommodate two hundred pupils in the rudiments of education; because the board at this time was not financially

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able to erect buildings and employ additional teachers for the large number of colored children who were in need of primary education, and because there were in the City of Augusta at this time three public highschools -- the Haines Industrial School, the Walker Baptist Institute, and the Payne Institute -- each of which were public to the colored people, and were charging fees no larger than the board charged for pupilage in the Ware High School."

After stating that the action of the special committee was approved by the board, the answer continued:

"At the same time when the vote was taken on the report of the Ware High School, it was unanimously resolved that the board of education reinstate the said school whenever in their judgment the board could afford it. Subsequently to the board's temporary suspension of the Ware High School a number of colored people petitioned the board for rescission of this action, among whom were the complainants herein. A full board was called and convened on the __ day of August, and the petitioners were heard and their request fully considered. The board, after a session and deliberation of over two hours, refused to rescind for the reasons heretofore set out, and says, in their view, until the local trustees -- i.e., the city conference board -- should have furnished a sufficiency of primary schools for the colored population it would be unwise and unconscionable to keep up a highschool for sixty pupils and turn away three hundred little negroes who are asking to be taught their alphabet and to read and write. No part of the funds of this board accrued or accruing and no property appropriated to the education of the negro race has been taken from them. This board has only applied the same means and moneys from one grade of their education to another grade, and in this connection defendant says that the enrollment in the colored school is this year 238 more than the last, the Ware High School building accommodating 188 pupils."

The answer of the board, referring to the act of 1872, averred that

"section 9 of said act commands the local trustees to provide the same facilities to each race as regards schoolhouses and fixtures, attainments and abilities of teachers

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and length of term, but that this section refers only to the schools established by the trustees of each school district under section 6 of said act, and does not apply to schools of higher grade; that section 10 of said act, which empowers this respondent to establish schools of higher grade than those established by the local trustees, ordains their establishment to such as the interest and convenience of the people may in the judgment of this board require. It admits that, on the 10th day of July last, it suspended the Ware High School for the reason that in its judgment the interest and convenience of the people did not require it, and that it caused to be established in its stead three primary schools for colored children, and for reasons heretofore in its answer set forth. Whether or not the petitioners at the time of said suspension had children attending the Ware High School this defendant is not advised, but denies that they are debarred from a highschool education in this community, since, for the same charges as were made by this board for pupilage in the Ware High School, they can find this education in three other colored highschools open to the public in the City of Augusta. Defendants deny the allegations specially pleading that the acts of 1872 and 1877 deny to the colored race equal protection of the law, or that the course and conduct of this board thereunder is obnoxious to this constitutional inhibition."

The plaintiffs amended their petition, alleging:

"1st. That 'the Payne Institute,' 'the Walker Baptist Institute,' and 'the Haines Normal & Industrial Institute,' mentioned in said answer, are purely private and pay educational institutions under sectarian control, and have been in existence for years past, and have no connection, and never have had any connection, whatsoever with the public school system conducted by said board. 2d. That said board has no legal right to charge for extending a public highschool education to the children of school age of actual residents of said county. 3d. That if a deficiency of means exists for extending a public primary school education to the colored school population of the City of Augusta in said county, said deficiency is due to the illegal action of said board in appropriating to the white

Page 175 U. S. 535

school population of said city largely more of the public school fund than it is legally entitled to, to the corresponding detriment of the colored school population of said city, and but for such illegal action there would be no such deficiency as said board avers."

In answer to this amended petition, the board admitted that the Payne Institute, the Walker Baptist Institute, and the Haines Normal & Industrial Institute mentioned in its answer were private educational institutions under sectarian control, and had no connection with the public school system conducted by the defendant board. But it averred that the impression sought to be conveyed that there was sectarian, denominational teaching in those schools was untrue; that the schools referred to were open to the public generally, and any child of sufficient scholarship and moral character could enter them, whatever his or her religious belief. The board also asserted its right to charge for tuition in highschools, and denied that any deficiency of means for extending a public primary school education to the colored school population was due to any action it had taken.

The defendant Bohler, the tax collector, demurred to the petition and also filed an answer.

The cause having been heard upon the demurrers and pleadings, the court sustained the demurrer of defendant Bohler, and refused to grant any injunction against him as tax collector. But the demurrer of the board of education was overruled, and an order was entered restraining the board from using

"any funds or property now in or hereafter coming into its hands for educational purposes in said county for the support, maintenance, or operation of any white highschool in said county until said board shall provide or establish equal facilities in highschool education as are now maintained by them for white children for such colored children of highschool grade in said county as may desire a highschool education or until the further order of the court."

This order was, however, suspended until the supreme court of the state should render its decision in the cause.

The plaintiffs did not appeal from the order refusing to

Page 175 U. S. 536

grant an injunction against the tax collector. But the case was carried to the Supreme Court of Georgia by the board of education, where the judgment of the Superior Court of Richmond County was reversed upon the ground that it erred in granting an injunction against the board of education. And in accordance with that decision the superior court, upon the return of the cause from the supreme court of the state, refused the relief asked by the plaintiffs and dismissed their petition. The plaintiffs in error complain of the latter order as being in derogation of their rights under the Constitution of the United States.

Page 175 U. S. 541

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