Sarah Roberts was just five years old when she attempted to enroll at a nearby white school in 1848. Sarah’s father, Benjamin Roberts, a printer in Boston, had petitioned to the Boston Primary School Committee to have her attend that school because it was close to their home.
Sarah was a student at Abiel Smith School, an all-black public elementary school in Boston, at the time, but she had to travel through five white schools to get there. Sarah’s father, upset by Sarah’s long walk to school, hoped that the Boston Primary School Committee would agree to his request that his daughter attends the nearby white school.
The Committee, however, declined his request four times, claiming that Sarah may attend the local African-American school instead. After Sarah was turned away from the white school closest to their home, Roberts launched a lawsuit against the city, which became America’s first school integration lawsuit. NPS cites the following 1845 statute as the basis for the lawsuit:
“Any child in this Commonwealth who is unlawfully excluded from public school instruction may recover damages in an action brought in his name, by his guardian or next friend, in any court of competent jurisdiction to try the case, against the city or town that supports such public school instruction.”
Sarah’s father hired Robert Morris, one of the country’s earliest African-American lawyers, to represent the family in their fight to end segregation in schools. Morris then enlisted the help of prominent abolitionist lawyer Charles Sumner as a co-counsel. On November 1, 1849, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard the case of Roberts vs. City of Boston case – Morris and Sumner contended that “all men, without distinction of color or race, are equal before the law,” as stated in the Massachusetts constitution.
Sumner went on to apply this concept to the educational system, saying, “Massachusetts statute has made no distinction of color or race in the founding of public schools.” The legislation establishing public schools refers to “schools for the teaching of children” in general and “for the benefit of all the citizens of the town,” without mentioning any specific class, race, or color.
However, in an 1850 judgment, Judge Lemuel Shaw stated that the Boston Primary School Committee had the jurisdiction to pick the schools for children and that separate schools did not infringe black pupils’ rights.
“The committee… has come to the conclusion that maintaining separate primary schools for colored and white children will best promote the good of both classes of school, and we can perceive no reason to doubt that this is the honest result of their experience and judgment,” Shaw declared.
His decision established the separate-but-equal doctrine, which allowed many American cities to continue segregated public schools.
Although Sarah and her father lost their case, the campaign for equal education did not come to an end. Following the Roberts vs. City of Boston case, black parents in Boston staged a school boycott and a series of rallies until the Massachusetts legislature established the country’s first statute forbidding school segregation in 1855, according to accounts.
Furthermore, Sarah’s first attempt at school integration, though little known, paved the way for the successful civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, which declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
According to documents, Sarah’s excellent attorneys Morris and Sumner’s arguments echoed throughout the Brown v. Board of Education case.