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Penn State history professor provides historical context surrounding Brown v. Board of Education

Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies Anne Rose guest lectured in Professor Stephen F. Ross’ Constitutional Law class on April 5 on the historical context surrounding Brown v. Board of Education.
Professor Rose | Penn State Law

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The Great Dissenter, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., said that to know the law, “we must know what it has been, and what it tends to become.”  In Penn State Law professor Stephen F. Ross’ Constitutional Law class, when he wanted his students to grasp the historical context surrounding Brown v. Board of Education, he invited Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies Anne Rose to speak to his class.

Rose, a historian of American culture of the 19th and 20th centuries, opened her lecture by quoting Holmes, explaining how she views Brown as a historical product that didn’t just happen, but rather was made to happen thanks to reformers who were searching for a compelling and effective legal mechanism to force the court to tackle racial injustice.

Like transportation segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, which Brown overturned, educational equity was an activist issue, brought to the Supreme Court by the NAACP and its chief counsel Thurgood Marshall. After Congress repeatedly failed to enact federal anti-lynching legislation, Marshall changed strategies and put the focus on education. In cases like Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma and Sweatt v. Painter, both of which involved educational equity issues at law schools, activists began laying the groundwork for Brown with successful challenges to racial segregation in education.

Rose also highlighted the role that sociological and psychological research played in Brown, which Chief Justice Earl Warren famously cited as “modern authority” in footnote 11 of the court’s opinion, finding that segregated schools denote inferiority in black students and that “a sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.”

“Although constitutional law junkies like me could spend hours on the legalities of Brown, I think our students benefitted in being able to appreciate how the case fits into our history,” Ross said.

He also urged his students to take advantage of their location on the campus of a world-renowned research university by taking a History class as an elective toward their J.D. degrees. 

“Judges require attorneys to be amateur historians and political scientists,” he said. “Lawyers use history all the time.”

Ross will return the favor by speaking to Rose’s Constitutional History class on comparative approaches to history, drawing on his research regarding Canada and Australia.

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