November 21st, 1927

Supreme Court Upholds Law Banning Chinese Americans From White Schools

First adopted in 1890 following the end of Reconstruction, the Mississippi Constitution divided children into racial categories of Caucasian or “brown, yellow, and black,” and mandated racially-segregated public education. In 1924, the state law was applied to bar Martha Lum, a nine-year-old Chinese American girl, from attending Rosedale Consolidated High School in Bolivar County, Mississippi, a school for white students. Martha’s father, Gong Lum, sued the state in a lawsuit that did not challenge the constitutionality of segregated education but instead challenged his daughter’s classification as “colored.”

When the Mississippi Supreme Court held that Martha Lum could not insist on being educated with white students because she was of the “Mongolian or yellow race,” her father appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

On November 21, 1927, in Gong Lum v. Rice, the Supreme Court ruled against the Lums and upheld Mississippi’s power to force Martha Lum to attend a colored school outside the district in which she lived. Applying the “separate but equal” doctrine established in 1896's Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the Court held that the maintenance of separate schools based on race was “within the constitutional power of the state legislature to settle, without intervention of the federal courts.” The Court thus reasoned that Mississippi’s decision to bar Ms. Lum from attending the local white high school did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment because she was entitled to attend a colored school. This decision extended the reach of segregation laws and policies in Mississippi and throughout the nation by classifying all non-white individuals as “colored."