2.6.2. The Mid-Atlantic States (1925-1965): Civil Rights Leadership During the Pre-King Years

  • In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation – specifically, “separate but equal” facilities for black and white Americans – was constitutional.  In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Court reversed itself and held that legally-compelled segregation violated the Constitution’s promise of equal protection of the laws. 
  • Most people think of the era between Plessy and Brown as one with no advances in civil rights.  But advances did occur, although there was dramatic variation among American regions and states in in the pace of civil rights reform.  Southern lawmakers, including the courts, firmly preserved segregation and other social and economic differences between the races (although there was some variation even among southern states).  Other regions generally did not use law to preserve segregation, but the extent to which they used it to eliminate existing discrimination varied widely.  The mid-Atlantic states had long been familiar with cultural diversity and the need to accommodate it; as a result, the region led the way in civil rights advances at the state level in the early and mid-20th century.
  • Millions of Americans experienced unfamiliar cultures for the first time as a result of their wartime service, and on their return many saw, for the first time, uncomfortable echoes of Nazi and Japanese brutality  in American race relations.  Influenced in part by these factors, in 1945, New York became the first state to enact a state fair-employment-practices law.  New Jersey quickly followed suit.  Both states expanded the scope of their accommodations laws in the late 1940s and 1950s, and in 1955 Pennsylvania followed.   Courts in all three states enforced the new laws with alacrity.


Adoption of laws prohibiting racial discrimination in employment

New York


New Jersey




Key cases:

Delaney v. Central Valley Golf Club, Inc. – New York, 1942 (43 N.E.2d 716); Holland v. Edwards – New York, 1954 (119 N.E.2d 581); Everett v. Harron – Pennsylvania, 1955 (110 A.2d 383); Castle Hill Beach Club, Inc. v. Arbury – New York, 1957 (142 N.E.2d 186); Evans v. Ross – New Jersey, 1959 (154 A.2d 441)

  • Delaney and Castle Hill illustrate the contrast between civil rights in the mid-Atlantic region before and after the end of the war.  In Delaney, New York’s highest court by a 5-2 vote upheld a golf club’s right to exclude blacks from membership:  it held that the club was private and thus not subject to the state’s accommodations law, even though the club had previously admitted one black member and had allowed members of the public, including blacks, to play its course. 
  • After the war, the court welcomed the legislature’s expansion of anti-discrimination laws.  In Holland and Castle Hill it signaled that it would interpret the new laws broadly and would reject attempts to evade the laws by indirection.  In Castle Hill the court held that a beach club in New York City was public, and thus subject to the new laws, even though it had created a private membership corporation in order to avoid application of the law.  In Holland, the court rejected a co-op building’s use of membership application questions which were neutral on their face but in terms of practical effect excluded black applicants from serious consideration.   
  • New Jersey and Pennsylvania courts took the same postwar approach as New York’s court.  In Ross, the New Jersey Court of Appeals held that a private restaurant that rented rooms for group banquets and had a history of soliciting business from the public and admitting individual blacks was subject to the state’s accommodations law, and must rent to black groups as well.  In Harron, the Pennsylvania supreme court struck down a Philadelphia swim club’s attempt to avoid admission of black patrons by incorporating privately: it noted that the club sought business from the public, and it openly expressed its displeasure with the club’s attempt to avoid the civil rights laws by indirection.  
Harlem, New York City (1939) - courtesy New York Public Library

Congress of Racial Equality march, Brooklyn, New York (1963) - courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“One intent on violating the Law Against Discrimination cannot be expected to declare or announce his purpose.  Far more likely is it that he will pursue his discrimination practices in ways that are devious, by methods subtle and elusive for we deal with an area in which ‘subtleties of conduct … play no small part.’” – Justice Stanley Fuld, in Holland

“The defendants … frankly admit that a crude attempt to give the enterprise the character of a private club in order to justify a selective admission of applicants was but a device to keep Negroes from the swimming pools.” – Justice __, in Harron