Filed Date: 1952
Clearinghouse coding complete
Belton v. Gebhart and Bulah v. Gebhart were two desegregation cases that arose in Delaware. At the time of the actions, the Delaware State Constitution provided that all public schools be segregated on the basis of race.
Gebhart stemmed from Claymont, a Wilmington suburb where Black students had to make a 20-mile round trip to Howard High School– the only high school in the state that permitted Black students to attend. Howard High School, along with Carver Vocational School, which was also open to non-white students, were both run by the Wilmington Special School District. Claymont High School, the neighborhood school, was state-run, well-funded, and exclusively open to white students. The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment that the Delaware constitutional provisions and laws requiring school segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. They also sought an injunction mandating that the defendants refrain from denying plaintiffs admission to schools open only to white students.
Bulah originated in the rural district of Hockessin. The named plaintiff's daughter was refused admission to Hockessin School No. 29, a modern whites-only school. Instead, the plaintiff had to drive her daughter two miles to the nearest school for Black children, a one-room schoolhouse with very few resources for students. She implored state officials, including the department of public instruction and the governor, to provide busing for her child. But state officials rebuffed her inquiries and replied that no transportation would be provided to her daughter. The plaintiffs and defendants in the second action asserted the same claims and defenses as in Belton.
Initially, Belton and Bulah were filed separately in the Delaware Court of Chancery. Eventually, the separate actions were combined for purposes of trial. Previously, in Parker v. University of Delaware, the Court of Chancery had held that segregation at the University of Delaware was unconstitutional. The combined Gebhart cases came before the same judge who had decided Parker: Chancellor J. Seitz.
Following the trial, Chancellor Seitz issued an opinion ordering the admission of plaintiffs to Howard High School. 32 Del. Ch. 343. In the opinion he considered two issues: "1) Do the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment forbidding a state to deny any citizen the equal protection of the laws forbid segregation of pupils in the public schools on the basis of color [and] 2) If state-imposed segregation is not in in itself unlawful, are the educational facilities afforded by the State to the plaintiffs substantially unequal to those afforded white pupils similarly situated?"
He first considered the plaintiffs' argument that state-imposed segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Citing the separate but equal doctrine, Chancellor Seitz found that plaintiffs were not entitled to relief under their first claim because the Supreme Court had not yet rejected the doctrine of separate but equal. He then turned to the plaintiffs' second contention: that facilities and educational opportunities available to Black students were substantially inferior to those available to white students. After surveying the extensive record of disparities between Howard High School and Carver Vocational School and Claymont High School, Chancellor Seitz "conclude[d] that the separate facilities and opportunities offered these plaintiffs, and those similarly situated, are not equal to those offered white children in the Claymont District, and that, in consequence, the State by refusing these plaintiffs admission to Claymont solely because of their color, is violating the plaintiff's rights protected by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." He rejected defendants' argument that the Court should do not more than order them to equalize facilities and opportunities, finding that "[t]o postpone such relief is to deny relief, in whole or in part, and to say that the protective provisions of the Constitution offer no immediate protection." Then, he ordered an injunction blocking defendants from excluding the plaintiffs and others similarly situated from attending Claymont High School on account of race.
Chancellor Seitz proceeded to consider the disparities between School No. 29 and School No. 107. After surveying factors used to evaluate educational opportunities, he "conclude[d] that the facilities and educational opportunities offered at No. 29 are substantially superior to those offered at No. 107." He again issued an injunction barring defendants from denying admission to plaintiffs and similarly situated students to School No. 29 on account of race.
The defendants appealed the injunctions to the Supreme Court of Delaware. 33 Del.Ch. 144. The plaintiffs filed a cross-appeal on the ground that the Court of Chancery should have overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine. On August 28, 1952, the Court affirmed the denial of declaratory relief and both injunctions. Following the Delaware Supreme Court's decision, eleven Black students began attending Claymont High School for the 1952-53 school year.
Even though the plaintiffs had already been admitted to Claymont High School, the defendants appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. 73 S.Ct. 213. As part of the Brown v. Board of Education litigation, the appeal of Belton was consolidated with four other NAACP desegregation actions. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court overturned the doctrine of separate but equal and held that segregation in the public schools violated the fourteenth amendment. Belton was the only case that the Brown Court affirmed in part.
The case is closed.
Gabrielle Simeck (10/10/2021)
Seitz, Collins Jacques (Delaware)
Southerland, Clarence A. (Delaware)
Last updated Aug. 30, 2023, 2:28 p.m.Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.
State / Territory: Delaware
Filing Date: 1952
Case Ongoing: No reason to think so
Black students and similarly situated children denied admission to Claymont High School and Hockessin No. 29.
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: Yes
Class Action Outcome: Granted
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: Plaintiff
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief:
Amount Defendant Pays: 0
Order Duration: 1952 - None
Content of Injunction:
Type of Facility: