Berea College v. Kentucky

Berea College v. Kentucky (1908) is a significant civil rights case in higher education that paved the way for subsequent judicial decisions that struck down segregated educational facilities as unconstitutional. Even so, the U.S. Supreme Court did not take an integrationist stance in Berea. Instead, the Court upheld a law from Kentucky that prohibited individuals and corporations from operating schools that taught both African American and White students.

Since its founding in 1855, Berea College had educated both African American and White students in a nondiscriminatory manner. However, in 1904, the Kentucky legislature passed the Day Law, which prohibited African American and White students from receiving an education at the same school or in schools that were located less than 25 miles apart. Insofar as Berea College was the only integrated educational institution school in Kentucky, it was clearly the target of the Day Law. Not surprisingly, Berea College was soon found to be in violation of the new legislation. Accordingly, Berea College was criminally convicted and fined $1,000 for violating the Day Law. Berea College appealed to the Court of Appeals of Kentucky, which decided that the law had the legitimate purpose of preventing racial violence and interracial marriage. Thus, the law and Berea College’s fine were permitted to stand.

On further review, in 1908, in a seven-to-two judgment, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which had ruled in favor of the commonwealth. The Berea Court majority was careful not to overrule its earlier opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which maintained that separate but equal facilities for Blacks and Whites were constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the Court extended Plessy’s rationale to include institutions of higher education. In order to follow precedent, the Berea Court did not base its judgment on Fourteenth Amendment grounds. Rather, the Court was of the view that Kentucky was legally able to change a past charter of one of its corporations. In other words, even though Berea College was still legally incorporated, the Court asserted that officials in Kentucky could amend the institution’s original charter through the subsequent legislation. In this way, then, the Day Law made it illegal for Berea College to admit both Black and White students. In essence, the Berea majority ignored the college’s argument that because voluntary and private association was protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, it was beyond the scope of governmental regulation. To the contrary, the Court determined that because Kentucky could create Berea College as a corporation, commonwealth officials also had the legal authority to limit the activities of such corporations.

Two justices concurred with the majority’s decision, and two justices dissented. Justice John Marshall Harlan strongly dissented, arguing that the purpose of the Kentucky legislature in passing the Day Law was not simply to amend Berea College’s charter. Rather, he reasoned that the title of the law, “An Act to Prohibit White and Colored Persons from Attending the Same School,” made it clear that its purpose was to segregate students on the basis of race. In light of this clear discriminatory legislative intent, Justice Harlan thought that it was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Specifically, he pointed out that the right to teach was a protected property right and a fundamental liberty. Harlan warned that by allowing Kentucky to prohibit teaching Black and White students in the same school, the Court was opening the door to allow jurisdictions to regulate whether Blacks and Whites could voluntary worship next to one another. Harlan vehemently opposed the government’s intrusion on private and voluntary association among the races. Almost 50 years after it resolved Berea, in Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka (1954), the Supreme Court adopted a position that was not unlike Justice Harlan’s in striking down racially segregated educational facilities as unconstitutional.

Janet R. Rumple

See also Due Process, Substantive and Procedural; McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education; Sweatt v. Painter

Further Readings

  • Hacker, H. J., & Blake, W. D. (2006). The neutrality principle: The hidden yet powerful legal axiom at work in Brown versus Board of Education. Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy, 8, 5–59.

Legal Citations

  • Berea College v. Kentucky, 211 U.S. 45 (1908).
  • Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
  • Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).