Five years before the impactful Supreme Court ruling Brown v Board, the decision that declared racial segregation unconstitutional, a Pulaski, Virginia case, Corbin v. Pulaski County School Board, showed that separate but equal was not, in fact, equal. Attorneys Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson represented Dr. P.C. Corbin’s son. They lost the first round in Virginia federal court, the judge ruling that because there also existed very poor quality schools for poor white students in Pulaski, no discrimination existed. On appeal in the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, the judges saw it differently. A breach of the 14th amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law to all Americans, the judges ruled that “whenever the forbidden racial discrimination rears its head, a solemn duty to strike it down is clearly imposed on the courts.” The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff. This early win was part of a movement of local class-action lawsuits orchestrated by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Thurgood Marshall, to equalize the public education of black students. Brave individual efforts and the collective effort of members of the black community who worked at and attended the Calfee Training School in Pulaski County led to the historic court case that pre-dated Brown v. Board. (The 13-minute video It Can Hardly Be Denied included with this lesson tells the story.)
These lessons can encompass the following Standards of Learning: USII – USII.4.c, 9.a; Civics – CE.9a; VAUS – VUS.8.c,d, 13.b,c, 14.a; USGOV – GOVT.3, 9, 11; English – Reading 10.5, 11.5, 12.5.
Corbin v Pulaski County School Board Lesson
- Stop the video to check comprehension or use the cloze exercise. There’s a lot of information!
- Don’t forget to use the closed captioning on the video — some students find her voice a little hard to understand.
- Before watching the video, be sure students know the vocabulary (below).
- Introducing the lesson with the newspaper article helps draw students in. The lesson components can be presented in a different order to suit you.
What does “equal protection under the laws” mean?
How did this court case, Corbin v. Pulaski School Board, contribute to societal and legal change in the United States?
Students will identify and explain events surrounding an early civil rights case.
Students will comprehend and contrast two interpretations of the “equal protection” clause.
Students will be able to explain the meaning of “equal protection under the law.”
Students will read critically and annotate text.
Segregation: (n) the enforced separation of different racial groups in a country, community, or establishment.
Plaintiff: (n) a person or group of people who brings a case against another in a court of law
Defendant: (n) a person or group of people who brings a case against another in a court of law
Appeal (law or legal): apply to a higher court for a reversal of the decision of a lower court.
Status Quo: (n) the existing state of affairs, especially regarding social or political issues.
Discrimination: (n) the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.
NAACP: stands for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights organization in the United States formed in 1909 as an interracial endeavor to advance justice for African Americans. Its mission in the 21st century is “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination”
Context, Activities, and Exercises
Activity 1 (~50 minutes)
This lesson asks students to use critical reading to analyze, tone, make inferences, and glean meaning from primary sources. Use one or both. This lesson pre-supposes that students have been taught to annotate text.
The news article below tells the story of the fire at Calfee School in November 1938 in Pulaski County, Virginia.
It Can Hardly Be Denied: Corbin v Pulaski County School Board Fire Destroys Calfee School Discussion Questions
- Where did the fire start, according to the article?
- What does the word raze mean?
- What efforts were made to extinguish the fire?
- What does the article say about a new school being built?
- What was the most important story in the Southwest Times newspaper on the day this article was published?
- What is the tone of this sentence: “Meanwhile, a huge crowd, attracted by the two alarms and the flames which shot over a hundred feet above the two-story brick structure, gathered and were treated to one of the most spectacular blazes Pulaski has had in years”?
- What is the tone of this sentence: “Spotted by night patrolmen, one fire truck turned out in record time and a hose line was hooked up. Within a few minutes the second truck made its appearance along with additional firefighters and several lines were concentrated on the blaze.”
- Find examples in the passage where the writer uses passive voice and the subject is the pronoun “it”. Example: “School authorities, this morning, were seeking a temporary place where colored pupils could continue their schooling pending erection of a new building, it was learned.” What is the overall effect on the article of these “It” clauses in passive voice?
- Based on your reading of the article, who do you think was the intended audience–who is the intended reader of this article?
- If this event happened today, what would the headline be? How might the article begin?
- Ask students to read the handout, or read the handout aloud. Then ask students to use close reading to re-read and annotate the text.
- Have students answer some or all of the discussion questions independently or with an elbow partner. Then group students in larger groups or one large group to have them share and discuss answers. Ask students to respond to each other’s answers rather than you responding to each answer.
- Show some or all of the video in preparation for tomorrow’s lesson.
Alternate primary source for this lesson:
Corbin Letter to the Editor: This document is a letter to the editor from prominent black citizen P.C. Corbin published in the Southwest Times. Corbin makes an appeal to the white citizens for a school facility (building) to educate all of the black students that will be of high quality.
It Can Hardly Be Denied: Corbin v Pulaski County School Board Corbin Letter to the Editor Discussion Questions
- In paragraph two, what does Corbin blame the fire on?
- What suggestion is Corbin making here: “We feel that the school board will feel the need of a centralization of the schools in the county we feel that this is the solution to sound school economy, to do away with the horse and buggy school in the rural section and place them at a central point in the county; or in Pulaski and furnish transportation to this one county school like so many other counties are doing”?
- What does Corbin ask for in the final paragraph of the letter?
- Who is the audience for this letter?
- Find examples in the letter of Corbin utilizing flattery or praise towards his audience.
- What is the tone of this letter?
- What logical argument does Corbin make?
- In the last line of the letter Corbin makes an allusion to the golden rule. How might this affect his readers?
- Compare the tone of this letter with the tone of the Southwest Times article.
- Is this letter an effective persuasive piece? Why or why not? How?
Activity Two (~50 minutes)
Prewrite: Ask students to jot down their thoughts about the words “equal protection under the law” Encourage students to write whatever comes into their minds and not to be concerned with correctness.
Watch Video (13 minutes): It Can Hardly Be Denied
Ask students to write down questions that they have as they are watching the video. Or, use this Cloze Exercise with the video.
Post write, Think-Pair-Share
- Write a general response to the contents of the video. (What struck you as interesting or surprising? What questions do you have? What conclusions can you make about the time period in Virginia in particular or in the United States?)
- Read some or all of your response to your partner.
- On your own paper, write 1 sentence summarizing your partner’s viewpoint or questions.
Large Group Discussion (10 minutes)
Begin by inviting students to share their responses. Guiding questions: What did you find interesting or surprising about this story? What questions do you have? What conclusions can you make about the time period in Southwestern Virginia, Virginia, or in the United States? Additional information: Plessy v. Ferguson is not a part of the video but should be brought into a discussion of the video’s content.
Critical Reading Exercise:
This handout contains quotations from the two case rulings. The purpose of the exercise is to invite critical reading and discussion. Focus on having students explain the thinking utilized by each of the presiding judges. Group students and assign one, some, or all passages to groups. Allow time for individual silent reading and annotation, then open groups for discussion and clarification.
Alternate Activity: Timeline Fill-in: This activity, when complete, will invite discussion about change over time and the move in thinking between Plessy v Ferguson and Brown v Board.
Closing Activity/Exit Ticket: What does equal protection under the law mean? Edit or modify your answer from the beginning of class.
Citations and Recommended Reading
- Corbin v. County School Board of Pulaski County, Va., 84 F. Supp. 253 (W.D. Va. 1949)
- Corbin v County School Board of Pulaski County
- Amdt14.S126.96.36.199 Equal Protection: General Background and Rational Basis Review
- Calfee Community and Culture Center
- Calfee Training School Museum Digital Archive
- Encyclopedia of Virginia, Percy C. Corbin
- National Trust for Historic Preservation Small School, Big Impact
The featured image of this learning experience is of the Library at Christiansburg Industrial Institute, found through the National Archives: https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/desegregation/pulaski.html
- Chauncey Depew Harmon: A Case Study in Leadership for Educational Opportunity and Equality in Pulaski, Virginia by N. Wayne Tripp, 1995, Dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute
- The Land that is Pulaski County by Conway Howard Smith, 1981
- The Negro in Virginia, Works Projects Administration, 1940
- The Southwest Times