On this dayDec 04, 1849

Massachusetts Supreme Court Hears Argument for Segregation; Later Upholds Practice

Image | Anti-Slavery Almanac

After the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared slavery illegal in 1783, African American parents in Boston were eager to send their children to public school to receive a quality education. However, African American children attending white schools in the city faced significant harassment from hostile white children and adults. In response to a petition by Boston’s African American parents, a school for black students was established in 1798.

By 1840, growing evidence suggested that Boston’s segregated schools were fostering prejudice and disparity; African American schools were widely underfunded, and black students were routinely denied admission to white schools while their parents were required to pay taxes to fund schools open only to white students. Fed up, African American families enlisted the legal representation of future United States Senator Charles Sumner and African American activist Robert Morris to spearhead Roberts v. City of Boston, a case challenging school segregation in Massachusetts.

The main plaintiff, Benjamin Roberts, sued on behalf of his five-year-old daughter Sarah Roberts. 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 insisted 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.

Months later, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Roberts and his daughter, holding that segregated schools did not violate the law as long as a school for “colored” students was maintained. This ruling authorized segregated schools in Massachusetts and remained in force until 1855, when the state legislature banned racial segregation in public school admissions.

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