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

Author: Justice Harlan

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

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, after stating the facts as above, delivered the opinion of the Court.

This writ of error brings up for review a final order made in the Superior Court of Richmond County, Georgia, in conformity to a judgment rendered in the supreme court of the state. That order, it is contended, deprived the plaintiffs in error of rights secured to them by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

The Supreme Court of Georgia, after stating in its opinion that counsel for the petitioners did not point out in his brief what particular paragraph of the Fourteenth Amendment was violated, said:

If it be the first, he does not point out what clause of that paragraph is violated, whether the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States are abridged, whether his clients are deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, or whether his clients are denied the equal protection of the laws. It is difficult, therefore, for us to determine whether this amendment had been violated. If any authority had been cited, we could from that have determined which paragraph or clause counsel relied upon, but as he has left us in the dark, we can only say that, in our opinion, none of the clauses of any of the paragraphs of the amendment, under the facts disclosed by the record, is violated by the board. There is no complaint in the petition that there is any discrimination made in regard to the free common schools of the county. So far as the record discloses, both races have the same facilities and privileges of attending them. The only complaint is that these plaintiffs, being taxpayers, are debarred the privilege of sending their children to a highschool which is not a free school, but one where tuition is charged, and that a portion of the school fund, raised by taxation, is appropriated to sustain white highschools to which negroes are not admitted. We think we have shown that it was in the discretion of the board to establish highschools. It being in their discretion, they could, without a violation of the law or of any constitution, devote a portion of the taxes collected for school purposes to the support of this highschool for white girls and to assist a county denominational highschool for boys. In our opinion, it is impracticable to distribute taxes equally. The appropriation of a portion of the taxes for a white girls’ highschool is not more discrimination against these colored plaintiffs than it is against many white people in the county. A taxpayer who has boys and no girls of a school age has as much right to complain of the unequal distribution of the taxes to a girls’ highschool as have these plaintiffs. The action of the board appears to us to be more a discrimination as to sex than it does as to race. While the board appropriates some money to assist a denominational school for white boys and girls, it has never established a highschool for white boys, and, if the contention of these plaintiffs is correct, white parents who have boys old enough to attend a highschool have as much right to complain as these plaintiffs, if they have not more. Without, therefore, going into an analysis of the different clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, we content ourselves by saying that in our opinion, the action of the board did not violate any of the provisions of that amendment. It does not abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, nor does it deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor does it deny to any person within the state the equal protection of its laws.

The Constitution of Georgia provides:

There shall be a thorough system of common schools for the education of children in the elementary branches of an English education only, as nearly uniform as practicable, the expenses of which shall be provided for by taxation, or otherwise. The schools shall be free to all children of the state, but separate schools shall be provided for the white and colored races.

Art. 8, section 1.

It was said at the argument that the vice in the common school system of Georgia was the requirement that the white and colored children of the state be educated in separate schools. But we need not consider that question in this case. No such issue was made in the pleadings. Indeed, the plaintiffs distinctly state that they have no objection to the tax in question so far as levied for the support of primary, intermediate, and grammar schools, in the management of which the rule as to the separation of races is enforced. We must dispose of the case as it is presented by the record.

The plaintiffs in error complain 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 is an injunction that would either impair the efficiency of the highschool provided for white children or compel the board to close it. But if that were done, the result would only be to take from white children educational privileges enjoyed by them without giving to colored children additional opportunities for the education furnished in highschools. The colored school children of the county would not be advanced in the matter of their education by a decree compelling the defendant board to cease giving support to a highschool for white children. The board had before it the question whether it should maintain, under its control, a highschool for about 60 colored children or withhold the benefits of education in primary schools from 300 children of the same race. It was impossible, the board believed, to give educational facilities to the three hundred colored children who were unprovided for, if it maintained a separate school for the sixty children who wished to have a highschool education. Its decision was in the interest of the greater number of colored children, leaving the smaller number to obtain a highschool education in existing private institutions at an expense not beyond that incurred in the highschool discontinued by the board.

We are not permitted by the evidence in the record to regard that decision as having been made with any desire or purpose on the part of the board to discriminate against any of the colored school children of the county on account of their race. But if it be assumed that the board erred in supposing that its duty was to provide educational facilities for the three hundred colored children who were without an opportunity in primary schools to learn the alphabet and to read and write, rather than to maintain a school for the benefit of the sixty colored children who wished to attend a highschool, that was not an error which a court of equity should attempt to remedy by an injunction that would compel the board to withhold all assistance from the highschool maintained for white children. If, in some appropriate proceeding instituted directly for that purpose, the plaintiffs had sought to compel the board of education, out of the funds in its hands or under its control, to establish and maintain a highschool for colored children, and if it appeared that the board’s refusal to maintain such a school was in fact an abuse of its discretion and in hostility to the colored population because of their race, different questions might have arisen in the state court.

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 acted in hostility to the colored race. Under the circumstances disclosed, we cannot say that this action of the state court was, within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, a denial by the state to the plaintiffs 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. We may add that 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. We have here no such case to be determined, and as this view disposes of the only question which this Court has jurisdiction to review and decide, the judgment is



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Chicago: Harlan, "Harlan, J., Lead Opinion," Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education, 175 U.S. 528 (1899) in 175 U.S. 528 175 U.S. 542–175 U.S. 545. Original Sources, accessed June 16, 2024,

MLA: Harlan. "Harlan, J., Lead Opinion." Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education, 175 U.S. 528 (1899), in 175 U.S. 528, pp. 175 U.S. 542–175 U.S. 545. Original Sources. 16 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Harlan, 'Harlan, J., Lead Opinion' in Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education, 175 U.S. 528 (1899). cited in 1899, 175 U.S. 528, pp.175 U.S. 542–175 U.S. 545. Original Sources, retrieved 16 June 2024, from