At Breakthrough Collaborative, we champion a future where every student and teacher can thrive. As we commemorate Black History Month, we’re sharing stories from significant historic events in the ongoing pursuit of educational equity. Join us in honoring a legacy of resilience and progress in education.

Today, we highlight the the landmark court case, Alston v. School Board Of Norfolk, which played a crucial role in exposing wage discrimination and laying the groundwork for future cases advancing educational equality nationwide. 

Prior to Alston v. School Board of Norfolk, Black educators’ salaries were significantly less than that of white teachers with similar qualifications. For example, Norfolk‘s Black high school teachers earned 53% less than white, male teachers with the same teaching experience and education. In elementary schools, new Black teachers with normal school degrees earned $226 less per year than similarly qualified white teachers.

Due to these discrepancies, the Norfolk Teachers Association, Virginia State Teachers Association, and NAACP aimed to challenge this inequality, deeming it a breach of the 14th Amendment.

Aline Black Petitions for Equal Pay

Aline Black, a chemistry teacher at Booker T. Washington, Norfolk’s only Black high school, volunteered to take the first step in pursuing equal pay. At the time, she was roughly making two-thirds what her white counterparts earned. Black requested a salary comparable to that of equally qualified white teachers from the Norfolk School Board. They rejected her petition, so in 1939, Black filed a lawsuit in state court.

Her case was dismissed by the court, but her legal team appealed the decision. However, The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals denied the appeal on the grounds that Black was no longer an employee since she was fired in retaliation for her suit against the school. 

Aline Black

Students protesting the firing of Aline Black

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Melvin Alston Files Suit Against Norfolk

Melvin Alston

A few months later, Melvin Alston, a fellow teacher at Booker T. Washington and president of the Norfolk Teachers Association, filed a suit. His case argued Norfolk board discriminated wages against Black educators for no reason other than race. The judge ruled that because the pay schedule was public knowledge and Alston signed his contract offered by the board, he accepted this pay inequity and had no right to contest his wages.

Alston and his legal team appealed the decision, and the case was pushed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Here, Norfolk’s salary schedule was thoroughly examined.

The Ruling

The U.S Court of appeals sided with Alston, stating:

“Teachers qualified and subject to employment by the state, are entitled to apply for the positions and to have the discretion of the authorities exercised lawfully and without unconstitutional discrimination as to the rate of pay to be awarded them, if their applications are accepted.” —Chief Judge Parker

The Aftermath

The Norfolk School Board appealed to the Supreme Court, which was denied without hearing. Thus, indirectly ruling against racially based wages and easing burden of proof in future cases challenging the separate but equal doctrine.

Norfolk’s Black teachers and the city government negotiated a three-year salary equalization plan. While Alston’s attorney, Thurgood Marshall, and the NAACP disapproved— as they felt Black educators should demand immediate pay parity— they recognized the case set a legal precedent for educators in Virginia and across the country.

Life After Legal Action

After being let go by Norfolk, Aline pursued a Phd. However, she only completed part of the requirements before she was rehired to resume her role at Booker T. Washington in 1941. Black remained there until 1970, and was later awarded the Backbone Award in 1971 for her contribution to educational and professional equality. She retired in 1973. 

Melvin Alston went on to graduate from Columbia University with an E.D. in Educational Leadership and Mathematics. He then taught in the Math department at Florida A&M University in 1945. Dr. Alston married Mama Doris Ruby Newsome in 1945 and they had five children.