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Education and the Mass Courts

“God helping me I [will] do my best to hasten the day when the color of the skin [will] be no barrier to equal school rights.”
—William Cooper Nell

African Americans historically have struggled to gain equal educational opportunities.

Initially denied any public education, blacks in Boston and a few other Massachusetts communities were later required by law to attend racially segregated public schools. In the mid 1800s racial segregation in Boston public schools was challenged, but in Roberts v. School Committee of Boston, the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the practice as constitutional. Only after intense lobbying from the black community and their white abolitionist allies did the state legislature enact a law in 1855 finally ending segregation in Boston public schools.

In 1970, African Americans sued in the Federal Court to reverse the racial segregation that had returned to the Boston Public School system, and they succeeded. In the 1990s, lawsuits challenged the decision of the Federal Court, and the justice system remained under increasing pressure to dismantle the successes of the 1970s.



William Cooper Nell (1816–1874)
While a 13-year-old student at the African Meeting House School, William Cooper Nell was denied the Franklin Medal for Scholarship in 1829, because of his race. Nell later led the struggle to desegregate Boston’s schools and became one of the city’s most important black leaders.
Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society


Meeting House Schoole
The Meeting House School (1843) located in Smith Court on Beacon Hill, was one of the segregated schools for African American students, including young William Nell and Sarah Roberts.
Courtesy of The Bostonian Society/Old State House


“[Education] in…two schools may be precisely the same, but a school devoted to one class must differ essentially in spirit and character from [one] where all classes meet together in Equality…. Prejudice is the child of ignorance…sure to prevail where people do not know each other.”
—Charles Sumner (1811–1874)