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Roberts v. City of Boston: 1848-49

Roberts v. City of Boston: 1848-49

Plaintiffs: Sarah Roberts, Benjamin F. Roberts
Defendant: Boston, Massachusetts
Plaintiff's Lawyer: Charles Sumner
Defendant's Lawyer: Peleg Chandler
Judge: Lemuel Shaw
Place: Boston, Massachusetts
Date of Trial: 1848-1849
Decision: The court nonsuited the plaintiff, in effect dismissing the case

SIGNIFICANCE: The Roberts case established the principle of "separate but equal" and validated segregation in public schools, providing the basis and rationale for the United States Supreme Court's infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision nearly 50 years later.

When most people think of segregated schooling, they think of the American South during the first half of the twentieth century. But one of the earliest court rulings to uphold separate schools for African-American children came a hundred years earlier in Boston, Massachusetts.

The schools themselves had their origins in the late 1700s, when Boston's black community asked the city to establish them, since black children who attended white schools were subjected to hostility and prejudice. At first the request was refused; later, white philanthropic efforts helped create such a school, and in 1820, Boston made it a part of the public school system. A second black school was established in 1831.

White public schools, meanwhile, flourished in Boston. By the 1840s, the city had more than 150 primary schools for white children. Together with the two black schools, they were under the control of a General School Committee, which state law empowered to operate the educational system and distribute the students at its sole discretion. But the black schools' facilities were in much worse condition than those of their white counterparts; at the same time, antisegregationist sentiment had started to grow in Boston's black community, which had reversed its earlier views on having separate schools. In 1846 black residents petitioned the General School Committee to end the segregation, but the committee denied the request.

Suit Challenges Segregated Schools

Although the General School Committee had nearly unfettered power to run the school system as it saw fit, state law did give every child a right, through his parents, to sue the city for damages if it unlawfully denied him or her admission to school. This was the provision that Benjamin F. Roberts and his five-year-old daughter Sarah used in 1848 when Sarah tried to attend a white school.

Sarah lived nearly half a mile from the closer of the two black schools. On the way to that school, she passed no fewer than five white schools. Attendance at one of these would have been much more convenient for her, so on February 15, 1848, she entered the white school closest to her home, but the teacher forced her to leave. Sarah's father tried to enroll her in a white school a total of four times; each time the General School Committee refused to allow the enrollment, simply because Sarah was black. After these repeated rebuffs, Roberts sued the city.

The Robertses' leading attorney was 38-year-old Charles Sumner, an erudite antislavery sympathizer who would soon be a U.S. senator. Sumner made a long and impassioned argument before the state's Supreme Court to show that segregation was not only illegal, but wrong. The Massachusetts Constitution and Massachusetts case law, Sumner declared, both required the equal treatment of all citizens. Thirteen years earlier, in 1836, the Massachusetts Supreme Court's Aves decision had abolished slavery in the commonwealth; since that time, Sumner argued, all were equal, and thus entitled to equal treatment.

The black schools were not actually equal, Sumner continued. What was more, he stated, they could never be legally equal, since by their existence they created a caste system. This sort of stereotyping, Sumner proclaimed, denied an individual's equality under the law. "He may be poor, weak, humble, or black," he argued, "he may be of Caucasian, Jewish, Indian, or Ethiopian Race but before the Constitution of Massachusetts all these distinctions disappear he is a MAN, the equal of all his fellow men." Against this onslaught, city solicitor Peleg W. Chandler could only argue that state law gave the General School Committee the power to run the school system in any way it chose. He also hinted that segregation, far from being unreasonable, served all of the children's best interest.

Court Backs Segregation

Hearing the case was a bench headed by Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, one of the nation's best-known and most influential judges. Shaw was hostile to slavery, and in fact he was the judge who had handed down the Aves decision on which Sumner was relying. But now, inexplicably, Shaw wrote an opinion that upheld both segregation and the General School Committee's decision.

He began by citing the same clauses in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights that Sumner had quoted, and that he himself had used in the Aves opinion to strike down slavery. It was true, he now wrote, that all persons were equal before the law. But that did not mean, he continued, that the law actually treated everyone equally, regardless of circumstance. He observed that men and women had different legal status; so, too, did adults and children. To these, Shaw added the third category of whites and blacks.

The General School Committee, Shaw held for a unanimous court, had plenary power to administer the school system as it wished, and the court should not interfere. In this instance, he found, the committee had decided "that the good of both classes of schools will be best promoted" by a segregated system, which was a reasonable decision. To Sumner's claim that this created a caste system, Shaw replied that the true source of that system was actually prejudice. "This prejudice," wrote Shaw, "is not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law." If prejudice existed, the chief justice concluded, then forcing white and black children to associate in integrated schools would do nothing to eliminate it.

Shaw even discounted the Robertses' objection to the extra distance that Sarah had to walk as utterly trivial. "In Boston," he pointed out, "more than one hundred thousand inhabitants live within a space so small it would be scarcely an inconvenience to require a boy of good health to traverse daily the whole extent of it." In light of this, he concluded, the extra distance that Sarah had to walk did nothing to make the committee's decision "unreasonable, still less illegal." With that, the court dismissed the Robertses' case.

Six years later, the Massachusetts legislature abolished segregated schooling, but the damage had already been done. Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, courts in other states, both North and South, cited the Roberts opinion to show that separate white and black school systems did not violate principles of equality before the law. In the infamous 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court cited Shaw's opinion, helping itself to many of his findings wholesale and giving the "separate but equal" doctrine federal constitutional sanction. Not until 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, did the Court change its mind, incorporating in that later opinion many of the same arguments that Charles Sumner had made in the Roberts case.

Buckner F. Melton, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Baltimore, Roderick T., and Robert F. Williams. "The State Constitutional Roots of the 'Separate but Equal' Doctrine: Roberts v. City of Boston." Rutgers Law Journal 17 (1986): 537

Levy, Leonard W. The Law of the Commonwealth and Chief Justice Shaw. New York: HarperTorchbooks, 1957.

Levy, Leonard W., and Douglas L. Jones, eds. Jim Crow in Boston: The Origin of the Separate but Equal Doctrine. New York: Da Capo Press, 1974.

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