Frequently overlooked in our nation’s unsettling history of racial prejudice and segregation is the fact that legislation alone often did not change the behavior of individuals or even governments. Many times it was years or even decades before the conduct of society came into line with the vision of a free and equal country.
On Monday evening, Lewis and Clark Community College hosted the Illinois Supreme Court Preservation Commission’s presentation History on Trial: Alton School Cases. The event consisted of a dramatic presentation of the court events related to a challenge to the Alton school system in the late 1800s regarding their segregation of schools. It also included a panel discussion on the rulings’ social and legal implications.
Opening remarks were presented by Illinois Supreme Court justices Lloyd Karmeier and Anne Burke. They spoke of the community spirit of the times, which became the driving force behind the court challenges to the school district and which they described as having a galvanizing effect on the black community.
The Alton School Cases were a series of seven circuit court trials and five Illinois Supreme Court appeals from 1897 to 1908 in which Scott Bibb, an African-American father of two school-age children, resisted the newly imposed racial segregation in the Alton school system. For 11 years he was joined by the Alton black community in organizing their challenge of separate schools.
The one-act play consisted of testimony taken from trial records as well as official rulings from Illinois Supreme Court records. Despite the court’s ban on segregated schools in the 1870s, Alton officials decided to defy the state law and built separate schools for black children. Even though Bibb won all five appeals at the Illinois Supreme Court, Alton schools remained segregated for nearly 50 years after the cases.
History on Trial is a series of presentations highlighting important and often little-known lawsuits in Illinois and American history. The series’ purpose is to demonstrate the cases’ relevance today and how the law remains a living, breathing part of society.
The panel discussion following the presentation reviewed and analyzed the consequences of the legal actions and highlighted the fact the Alton School Cases provide a window into the Alton of the late 1800s as well as their lasting effects into the 20th century. The panel included attorneys, justices and dignitaries from throughout the state and provided commentary as well as taking questions from the audience.
The event was held in the Hatheway Cultural Center on the college campus.