The 14th Amendment and Me by Robert Stuart

When I entered grad school at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1956, my graduate professor in American history asked if I had a thesis subject in mind. I said I didn’t yet have one, and he asked if I would take a project on. Then he explained what it was.

He was Howard K. Beale, who was one of several historians who had been asked by the team for the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka to do some research as background for the case. Did the 14th Amendment in its equal protection clause support integration in public schools? The resulting 1954 Supreme Court decision answered that question in the affirmative. Mr. Beale told me he felt he and his colleagues who had been asked to do background work were rushed to offer their opinions. He wanted a more thorough study of the question. Would I take it on? I said I would.

The result was my thesis, its title in language from the time, “The Intent of the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment Concerning the Question of Separate Negro Schools.” 

I brought a personal interest to my research given my own background. I had graduated from Webster Groves High School in Webster Groves, Mo., in 1952. It was a white school separate from the black high school in town. I thought nothing of that at the time. Indeed, segregation can be so much a frame of mind, let alone the law, that I didn’t even know there was a black school in town. 

Or not until I was 16 and able to drive. On my own one day, I discovered the black community on the other side of a hill within our St. Louis suburb. Simultaneously I remember hearing the black maid in the home of one of my friends lament the pending destruction of her area of St. Louis to make way for what became one of the first housing projects in urban American planning. I sensed, listening to her, that something was wrong about that — that she would lose her home. 

When I went to DePauw University I intentionally chose to live in an independent fraternity with open membership. That democratic spirit appealed to me and meant that black male students could join the fraternity if they wished to. One of those who pledged the fraternity when I was pledge chairman was Vernon Jordan, who soon became involved in campus politics (and later in the civil rights movement and the Clinton administration). I was astonished to learn from another black student that he had to take a bus 40 miles into Indianapolis to get a haircut. No one in Greencastle, including a black barber, would cut hair for a black man.

Therefore, when I went to the University of Wisconsin and was offered an opportunity to examine the background of the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, I was interested personally as well as in the history. 

My focus was to get at the intent of the framers of the 14th Amendment with regard to the question of education. I wasn’t interested in what later became a related question, namely, does original intent determine what the courts should say now? 

I didn’t know how exhaustive the study would be. Probably no one under 40 today can appreciate what research in primary sources required in earlier decades. Primary sources were hard copies of books, newspapers, journals, and other written material. A student took notes by hand, writing these down on cards or by whatever means devised, then organizing the material to see what might come of it. Specifically to form a thesis. I spent days, weeks — years? — looking at congressional debates recorded in the Congressional Record, 1866 to 1875. Then into the archives of state legislatures in their debates leading to ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. And a look at newspaper editorials at the time, and policies of state and county boards of education where sources were available.

There were days when I would emerge from the stacks of the Wisconsin Historical Society and, feeling slightly dazed, wonder where my car was parked. And once I dated a letter to a friend with the year 1857. 

I came to appreciate the careful language of the 14th Amendment, specifically Section 1, and in context the three Civil War amendments in sequence, abolishing slavery, establishing a federal definition of citizenship with a guarantee of due process and equal rights, and the right to vote. Then, during Reconstruction under the leadership of the Radical Republicans, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, whose delineation of civil rights (excluding education because it was too contentious) was the most comprehensive definition of civil equality until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (The 1875 law was declared unconstitutional in 1883, a Reconstruction frame of mind having been abandoned after the election of 1876.) 

I won’t write a synopsis of my thesis here, except to say by way of conclusion that when the education of the newly freed slaves was discussed at the national and state levels, and in the press and within boards of education, opinion was divided. Not surprising. There were those, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts chief among them, who said equal protection required integration. There were definitely others who argued for segregation. On the ground among the states and in local jurisdictions, practice varied, and we know from other studies that strict Jim Crow segregation did not come into full play until the 1890s. It was the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 that laid out the separate but equal doctrine. 

Sidebar comment: It’s too easy to say the Civil War was fought over slavery, and it’s equally short to say the division was over the question of what constitutes a federal system of government. Each was tied into the other inextricably. 

It took a long time for me to have my thesis approved and my master’s degree granted in 1960. Howard Beale, my professor, kept admonishing me to dig deeper, which I did. He never rejected my draft chapters, but he never signed off on them either. It was always more, more, more, until the thesis eventually became 219 typed pages on my Smith Corona, including footnotes and bibliography. Among the sources examined were Beale’s own papers, which included notes and working papers by other historians who had worked on background for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. 

In the years between 1956, when I began, and 1960, when the thesis was approved and the degree granted, I was drafted, in late 1957, and served as a conscientious objector in a hospital for two years before going to Princeton Theological Seminary in 1959. By that time, what to do about the thesis? 

I was persistent. Should I say by an act of God? No, I don’t believe that, but Beale died of a heart attack in December 1959. A committee at the history department at Wisconsin saw I had in fact concluded my studies and the thesis. A date was arranged for the spring when I met the committee for my oral examination. Though a bit nervous initially, I realized a few minutes into the exam that I knew more about the subject than the committee, and I sailed through. Degree granted.

I have always harbored the idea that I would like my thesis in print, simply because the question of segregation and integration in American life, including education, has remained current. And today it is of heightened interest and tension. 

Being a member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop, I have kept abreast of the publishing world (a bit chaotic) and come to realize I could get the thesis printed myself. Therefore through CreateSpace, a division of Amazon, the thesis is now in print with the title “The Fourteenth Amendment in Its Intent for Education.” It is my hope to get the title into electronic and print bibliographies to be available as a reference.

In the meantime, because of my study of the 14th Amendment and its history, I am a passionate advocate for its federal definition of citizenship and guarantee of due process and equal rights. For whatever excesses might be stated, I nonetheless remain a student and advocate for advances made during Reconstruction. We didn’t fight the Civil War to have the whole thing turned back to the states. Then or now. 

Thus the voice of a Northern boy with family in Minnesota and Iowa, who came of age in the border state of Missouri. 

Robert Stuart is pastor emeritus of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church. He lives in Springs.