8.1.2 Great Plains (1850-1900): Civil Rights in the Frontier Great Plains

The bonds of war:  civil rights in the frontier Great Plains
Board of Education of Ottawa v. Tinnon – Kansas, 1881 (26 Kan. 1); Messenger v. State – Nebraska, 1889 (41 N.W. 638); Knox v. Board of Education of Independence – Kansas, 1891 (26 P. 616); Reynolds v. Board of Education of City of Topeka – Kansas, 1903 (72 P. 274)
  • Kansas and Nebraska were a focal point of the crisis over slavery that led to the Civil War.  Because their free-state status came only after a hard struggle, Kansans and Nebraskans felt a special responsibility to uphold basic civil rights for their black fellow citizens.  Oklahoma was the only exception in the Great Plains:  due to its more distinctly southern heritage, Oklahoma mandated school segregation from territorial days onward.
  • After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal accommodations law in 1883,  Kansas and Nebraska, like many other Northern states (see § ___), quickly passed laws guaranteeing equal access to restaurants and other public accommodations. Few cases came up under the accommodations laws.  In Messenger, the one published case of the era, Nebraska’s supreme court summarily enforced the law and required an Omaha barbershop to serve black customers.

  • School segregation was another matter.  In Tinnon, Kansas’s supreme court held that segregated schools would not be allowed except to the limited extent permitted by state law:  integration would be the basic rule.  Justice David Brewer, who later joined the U.S. Supreme Court, argued that local authorities should be allowed to provide separate but equal schools if they saw fit – thus foreshadowing his later vote in Plessy v. Ferguson, which sanctioned “separate but equal” segregation nationally (see § ___).  Brewer ultimately prevailed, to a degree.  Twenty years later, in Reynolds, the court concluded that the legislature had effectively reenacted an old law giving local districts the option to segregate, and the court indicated it would not scrutinize local segregation decisions too closely.


     File:Benjamin "Pap" Singleton.jpg

    Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, leader of the "Exoduster" migration of freed slaves into Kansas (1877) - courtesy Wikimedia Commons

    “Is it not better for the grand aggregate of human society, as well as for individuals, that all children should mingle together and learn to live with each other? … As a rule, people cannot afford to be ignorant of the society which surrounds them; and as all kinds of people must live together in the same society, it would seem to be better that all should be taught in the same schools.”  - Justice __, in Tinnon


    “I think free schools mean equal school advantages to every child, leaving questions of classification … to be determined by the wisdom of the local authorities.” – Justice David Brewer (dissenting), in Tinnon


    “Such prejudices are unworthy of our better manhood.” – Justice __, in Messenger