December 4th, 1849

Massachusetts Supreme Court Upholds Segregated Schools

The Massachusetts Supreme Court declared slavery illegal in 1783, a decision which ushered in the notion of equality across the state. In Boston, African American parents were eager to send their children to school for a quality education, but African American children attending white schools in the city faced significant harassment from whites who disapproved. Boston’s African American parents began petitioning for segregated schools as a protective measure and a private school for black students was established in 1798.

By 1840, there was concern that Boston’s segregated schools fostered prejudice and disparity; African American schools were underfunded and when black students sought admission to white schools they were denied. Moreover, African Americans were required to pay taxes for schools open only to white youth. Fed up, African American families enlisted the legal representation of future United States Senator Charles Sumner and African American activist Robert Morris to spearhead a case challenging school segregation in the state. The main plaintiff was Benjamin Roberts, who sued on behalf of his five-year-old daughter Sarah Roberts. The case was Roberts v. City of Boston.

When Sarah turned five, her father sought to enroll her in the school nearest their home but Sarah’s application was rejected because she was black. Mr. Roberts attempted to send Sarah to the school anyway, but she was sent home. School leaders argued that Sarah could not attend white schools and had to choose one of two city schools established solely for African Americans. The Roberts sued and, on December 4, 1849, their lawyers argued before the Massachusetts Supreme Court that segregation was an unlawful basis for exclusion from a public school.

In 1850, the Massachusetts Supreme Court disagreed and held that segregated schools did not violate the law as long as a school for “colored” students was maintained. This ruling authorizing segregated schools in Massachusetts was overturned five years later when the state legislature banned discrimination in public school admissions.