Equalization? The Black and Alston Cases (1939-40)

From the beginning of segregated public schooling in Norfolk, black teachers made less than their similarly trained white counterparts. By the late 1930s, the disparity in pay was pronounced, with black teachers earning roughly 56 to 72 percent of what their similarly skilled white colleagues made. Dissatisfaction with the situation was high. As trained professionals, African American teachers wanted the same level of respect and status that white teachers had in the community. As a result, in 1937, with new pressure from the NAACP, the Norfolk Teachers Association (NTA), the city's all-black union, joined with its state-wide body, the Virginia Teachers Association (VTA), in a legal effort to challenge the discriminatory pay scale established by the City of Norfolk.1

The first real step in the effort was taken by a volunteer, Ms. Aline Black, a young chemistry teacher at Booker T. Washington, Norfolk 's only black high school. On October 27, 1938, Black petitioned the Norfolk School Board for pay equal to that of her comparably trained white counterparts. At the time, she earned roughly two-thirds of the “white salary” she requested, and the white janitor at her school made more than any black teacher on the staff. Still, the school board denied her request, and in 1939 Black was forced to file suit in state court.2

Obviously, this course of action had been anticipated by the VTA and the NAACP, whose lawyers represented Black in court. The hope was that if Norfolk's white leaders would not willingly equalize the salaries paid to the city's white and black teachers, then the state courts might be used to force them. The argument against Norfolk 's discriminatory pay scale was clear enough: it violated Black's constitutional rights under the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. And yet, the City of Norfolk mounted a powerful defense in court, arguing that Black had no right to a higher salary, since she had willingly signed a yearly contract to work at her current rate of pay. Furthermore, Norfolk 's counsel argued, the city government had the sole right to set personnel standards, and the court could not interfere in its decisions.3

In the end, Judge Allan R. Hanckel found for Norfolk, writing that the court had no power to overturn the personnel decisions of the city's school board or to interfere in a contract legally entered. Although Black's attorneys quickly filed an appeal with the Virginia Supreme Court, her case was abandoned when the city failed to renew her teaching contract for the following year. This meant that although Black had worked for the City of Norfolk for 12 years, she could not continue as a litigant in the case, since she now had no legal relationship to the body that she was trying to sue.4

Still, the NAACP did not give up on Norfolk. On Sunday, June 25, 1939, Thurgood Marshall joined with the organization's Executive Director, Walter White, in a public protest of Black's treatment. Organized by P.B. Young, the Editor of the Norfolk Journal and Guide, the public meeting included hundreds of children, who marched through the streets of downtown Norfolk carrying signs lambasting the school board and its decision to let Black go. When the marchers reached their destination, St. John's African Methodist Episcopal Church, Marshall and White assured the crowd that the battle for equalization would continue.5

Indeed, within a few short months, Black's colleague, Melvin Alston, a commerce teacher at Booker T. Washington, had initiated a new pay equalization suit. This time, Thurgood Marshall joined the NAACP legal team, including Leon Ransom, William Hastie, and Oliver Hill, as the civil rights organization took the case to court. There was another difference as well. As head of the Norfolk Teachers Association, Alston had convinced the NTA to join the suit as a co-litigant, which meant that any decision in the case would have a wide-spread impact.6

Initially, Alston's case proceeded as Black's had. Although the NAACP lawyers argued that Norfolk 's pay schedule violated their client's Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights, Circuit Judge Luther Way found that Alston had voluntarily entered a contractual relationship with the City of Norfolk, and that he had no right to contest the rate of pay that he was receiving. Again, the NAACP was forced to appeal. This time Marshall pushed on to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, where Norfolk 's salary schedule was put under the microscope. The court record shows that first-year black elementary school teachers made $611 a year, while first-year white elementary school teachers made $937 a year, a difference of $326. At the high school level, the salary was $699 for black teachers and $970 for white teachers, a difference of $271. These facts, when presented with Marshall's constitutional argument, persuaded Judge John J. Parker and his colleagues that “the School Board's use of a racially discriminatory salary schedule was a ‘condition' that violated black teachers' rights under the equal protection clause [of the Fourteenth Amendment].” This decision overturned the previous opinion written by Judge Way, and although the City of Norfolk appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, the high court denied certiorari in October 1940. As a result, Norfolk 's African American teachers entered a series of controversial negotiations with the city government, ultimately agreeing to a three-year salary equalization plan.7

Although Thurgood Marshall and the leadership of the NAACP disapproved of Norfolk 's three year salary plan -- arguing that the city's black teachers should demand immediate pay parity -- they recognized that the Alston case established a legal precedent for teachers throughout Virginia and the wider nation. In addition, the NAACP's victory in cases like Alston's set the stage for a direct attack on the “separate but equal” doctrine. Of course, it took Marshall and the NAACP legal team four further years to score their major victory in Brown v. Board of Education. But, that decision brought on the second major educational showdown in Norfolk.8



1. Lewis, In Their Own Interests, 157-158.

2. Ibid., 160.

3. “Court Denies Salary Claim Of Teacher,” Norfolk Virginian Pilot , June 1, 1939 Lewis, In Their Own Interests, 159.

4. “No Contract for Teacher Who Filed Pay Suit,” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 24, 1939. Lewis, In Their Own Interests, 160.

5. “School Board is Urged to Reappoint Fired Teacher,” Norfolk Journal and Guide , July 1, 1939.

“Equal Salary Case in U.S. Court Monday,” Norfolk Journal and Guide, February 10, 1940 . Lewis, In Their Own Interests , 161.

7. For Alston's case, see: Alston et al. v. School Board of City of Norfolk et al. , 112 F.2d 992. In addition, see: “Here's How the Alston Case Stands,” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 29, 1940 and “Supreme Court Refuses Review of Equal Teacher's Salary Decision,” Norfolk Journal and Guide, November 2, 1940 .

8. Mark Tushnet, The NAACP's Legal Strategy against Segregated Education, 1925-1950 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987), chapters 6 and 7. In addition, see Wilkerson, Doxey A. "The Negro School Movement in Virginia : From 'Equalization' to 'Integration,'" The Journal of Negro Education 29 (Winter 1960): 17-29.







School Photo, 1930s | full size

Students protest the firing of Aline Black, June 1939. | full size | source

Students playing at a local African American school | full size

Melvin Alston | full size


Alston's Lawyers: Thrugood
Marshall, Leon A. Ransom, William Hastie, and Oliver Hill | full size


Teacher Salaries Compared | full size