If Californians ever doubt the power of one person to change history, they need only reflect on the life of Alice Piper, whose courageous insistence on her right to attend public schools led to a state Supreme Court decision that for the first time allowed Native Americans like Piper to attend local public schools instead of Indian schools.
Alice Piper was a 15-year-old Paiute girl residing in Big Pine, Inyo County, who petitioned to attend the newly built Big Pine High School in 1923 and was denied entry due to her race. At that time, California educational law prohibited Native American children from attending a public school if a separate government-run Indian school was established within three miles of the public school.
Piper, along with six other Indian children, sued the district for the right to attend. On June 2, 1924, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled in her favor in the case Piper v. Big Pine, thus opening the door for her and other Native American children to attend public schools in California. The court ruled that the state laws violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the laws.
The ruling in Piper v. Big Pine was cited as a precedent in the
U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling (1954), which specifically outlawed “separate but equal” public schools and ended school segregation.
June 2 marks the anniversary of the court ruling that opened the doors. In 2014, the day was celebrated in Big Pine with the dedication of a memorial and statue in Piper’s honor.
This year, 2019, marks the 95th anniversary of the ruling.