How America forgot 5-yr-old Sarah Roberts, who first fought for school integration

Mildred Europa Taylor July 27, 2020
Sarah’s case was the first legal challenge to school segregation, more than a century before Brown v. Board of Education. This illustrated picture book throws light on the lesser-known case. Source: Red Canoe Reader

Sarah Roberts was around age five when she tried to enroll in a nearby school for whites in 1848. Her father, a printer in Boston known as Benjamin Roberts, had applied to the Boston Primary School Committee for Sarah to attend that school since it was close to their home.

Sarah was at the time attending the Abiel Smith School, an all-black public elementary school in Boston but she had to walk past five white schools on her way to Abiel Smith. Her father, who was frustrated over Sarah’s long walk to school thought the Boston Primary School Committee would accept his request to allow his daughter to attend the white school nearby.

However, the Committee denied his request four times, maintaining that Sarah could rather attend the local school for African-American children. After entering Sarah into the white school nearest their house and was turned away, Roberts filed a suit against the city which would become America’s first school integration lawsuit. The suit was filed under the following 1845 statute cited by NPS:

“Any child, unlawfully excluded from public school instruction, in this Commonwealth, shall recover damages therefor, in an action on the case, to be brought in the name of said child, by his guardian or next friend, in any court of competent jurisdiction to try the same, against the city or town by which such public school instruction is supported.”

Sarah’s father contracted Robert Morris, one of the first African-American lawyers, to represent the family in their suit to end segregated schools. Morris then called on leading abolitionist lawyer Charles Sumner to be his co-counsel. When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard the case on November 1, 1849 – the Roberts vs. City of Boston case – Morris and Sumner argued that the Massachusetts constitution states, “all men, without distinction of color or race, are equal before the law.”

Sumner went ahead to apply this understanding to the school system: “The legislation of Massachusetts has made no discrimination of color or race in the establishment of the public schools. The laws establishing public schools speak of “schools for the instruction of children” generally, and “for the benefit of all the inhabitants of the town,” not specifying any particular class, color or race.”

Sumner and Morris then argued school segregation on the basis of race “is a violation of equality,” adding that the Boston Primary School Committee “had no power to determine the school a child may attend on the basis of race.”

But Judge Lemuel Shaw in his ruling in 1850, said the Boston Primary School Committee had the authority to determine the schools for children, adding that separate schools did not violate the rights of black students.

“The committee… have come to the conclusion, that the good of both classes of school will be best promoted, by maintaining the separate primary schools for colored and for white children, and we can perceive no ground to doubt, that this is the honest result of their experience and judgement,” Shaw declared.

His ruling provided a basis for the separate-but-equal doctrine that maintained segregated public schools in many American communities.

Sarah and her dad did lose the case but that didn’t end the fight for equal schools. According to accounts, black parents in Boston, following the Roberts vs. City of Boston case, organized a school boycott and series of protests until the Massachusetts legislature passed the country’s first law prohibiting school segregation in 1855.

What is more, Sarah’s first attempt at integrating schools, though little known, led to the successful struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case that declared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

In fact, the arguments of Sarah’s talented attorneys Morris and Sumner did echo through the Brown v. Board of Education case, according to records.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: July 27, 2020


Must Read

Connect with us

Join our Mailing List to Receive Updates