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Sarah Roberts vs. Boston
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In 1848, the city required Sarah Roberts, a five-year-old African American, to enroll in an all-black public elementary school. Benjamin Roberts, Sarah’s father and one of the nation’s first African American printers, challenged the Boston School Committee’s policy of racial segregation.

Going to School
Like the black children shown in this engraving, Sarah Roberts was denied entrance to school because of her color. “Turned Away from School,” Anti-Slavery Almanac, Boston, 1839

In 1850, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, one of the most influential state supreme courts in the country, held that racial segregation of public schools was permitted under the United States Constitution. In doing so, the court established a precedent that state supreme courts in the South quickly adopted. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court cited the Roberts case as precedent to uphold the constitutionality of racial segregation and the doctrine of “separate but equal” in the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson.

Sarah and Benjamin Roberts lost their legal challenge in the Massachusetts courts. However, their efforts anticipated the successful struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the famous case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)—more than a century later.

Lemuel Shaw
Lemuel Shaw (1781–1861)
Courtesy of the Social Law Library, Boston

Jim Crow born in Boston
Rejecting Benjamin Roberts’ contention that the Boston School Committee’s racial segregation policy was unconstitutional, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw maintained that racial prejudice “is not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law.”

The family of the Copeland sisters, like the Roberts family, belonged to Boston’s black middle class. Both families used the legal services of the prominent black attorney, Robert Morris. Painting by William Matthew Prior, 1854, Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Reproduced with permission, ©Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


“No great reform was ever projected or early espoused by any powerful organization . . . . It begins in the heart of a solitary individual.” —William Lloyd Garrison

Smith School
enlarged view
The Abiel Smith school was one of a number of segregated schools for “colored” children in Boston. Advertisement for the Abiel Smith School in the 1840s,

Courtesy Boston Athenæum

Robert Morris
Robert Morris
A giant of the legal community of Boston, Robert Morris took the lead in the Roberts case when he was only 25 years old.
Courtesy of the Social Law Library, Boston

Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner
Joining Robert Morris as co-counsel for the Roberts family, Charles Sumner argued before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on December 4, 1849 that separate schools could never be equal.
Courtesy Boston Athenæum