Following nearly two decades of legal challenges to the effects of racial segregation in public schools and higher education, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas on May 17, 1954, that state laws requiring the separation of races in public schools were unconstitutional in spite of the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson because in reality separate schools were inherently unequal.
Even before emancipation, many African Americans understood that education and literacy were among the most precious objects of desire. Shortly after the Civil War concluded, the United States War Department's Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands established schools for former slaves, which both children and adults eagerly attended throughout the southern states. The Virginia Constitution of 1869 established the state's first free public school system, and although it was poorly funded and racially segregated, it was extremely popular with the state's African Americans and also with many poor white families who had not been able to afford to educate their children. The Constitution of 1902 required that the public schools be racially segregated, and poor quality and inadequate funding continued to characterize the state's schools for black children.
During the 1930s and 1940s, African American teachers and parents worked to improve schools and teacher salaries, but city and county school boards and governing bodies routinely appropriated significantly less money for black schools than for white schools and relied on the separate but equal doctrine of the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision to justify separation and to excuse inequality.
In 1951 students at Prince Edward County's Robert R. Moton High School went on strike to protest the severe overcrowding and poor conditions at their school. Barbara Johns and other student leaders persuaded civil rights attorneys Spottswood W. Robinson III and Oliver W. Hill to sue the county school board over the inequality and the two lawyers filed suit to seek an end to mandatory racial segregation in Virginia's public schools. It was a risky strategy to challenge decades of established law and practice, but the students' determination convinced the attorneys to take the case. Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward County went to the Supreme Court of the United States and was combined with similar cases from three other states and the District of Columbia. On May 17, 1954, the Court ruled unanimously in the combined cases styled Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that mandatory racial segregation in public schools was inherently unequal and therefore denied black students the equal protection of the law to which the Fourteenth Amendment entitled them.