Marker Text: 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.
Location: On South Main Street in front of The Second District School, Meadville, PA. Erected by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 2000.
My last post about school integration during the 1950's in what was called “Massive Resistance” over segregation within Virginia schools was only one event in many years of struggle to integrate public schools. The first struggles to integrate public schools began less than 20 years after the end of the Civil War, like this marker located in Meadville, PA indicates.
Photo taken looking south on S. Main Street in Meadville, PA. Click any photo to enlarge.
On May 8, 1854, Governor William Bigler signed Pennsylvania's common school law creating “separate schools for the tuition of negro and mulatto children.” Twenty-six years later in September 1880, Elias Allen, an African American living in Meadville, Crawford County, challenged the legislation by trying unsuccessfully to enroll his two children in the South Ward school in Meadville. 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 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.”
Judge Pearson Church (1838–1898), President Judge of the Thirteenth Judicial District in Crawford County, 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. Judge Pearson Church was the first Judge in Pennsylvania, and perhaps in the United States to decide that African American children should have the same access to public schools as white children.
Marker is next to the Second District School in Meadville, which I believe is the original site of the South Ward School, mentioned in the marker.
The General Assembly of Pennsylvania in 1881 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, making 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.” Pennsylvania Governor Henry M. Hoyt signed the bill on June 8, 1881, amending the 1854 legislation.
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 following this decision by Judge Church to end desegregation in Pennsylvania schools though discrimination silently exists in other areas of life.
This marker erected in 2000 commemorating this desegregation decision is located on the original site of the South Ward School. I believe the school existing now on the site in the background of the marker is on the same site as the original school.
Judge Pearson Church continued to make some important rulings as a judge, such as, in 1883 he decided the Tidewater Pipe Line case against Standard Oil. Titusville, which was located in Crawford County, near where Edwin Drake had drilled the first commercial oil well in 1859 was the center of the early battle over the control of the oil industry. Judge Church's decision put an end to Standard Oil's monopoly in the transportation of oil to markets from the locate oil wells. Standard Oil Company had been attempting to injure and destroy its chief rival in the transportation of oil by the Tidewater Pipe Line.