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Roberts v. City of Boston 5 Cush. (Mass.) 198 (1850)

ROBERTS v. CITY OF BOSTON 5 Cush. (Mass.) 198 (1850)

In brown v. board of education (1954) the Court observed that the separate but equal doctrine "apparently originated in Roberts v. City of Boston. " Chief Justice lemuel shaw's opinion in that case had an extraordinary influence. The courts of at least ten states relied on it as a precedent for upholding segregated education. In hall v. decuir (1878) the Supreme Court cited it as an authority for the rule that "equality does not mean identity." In plessy v. ferguson (1896) the Court relied on it as the leading precedent for the validity of state legislation requiring racial segregation in places where whites and blacks "are liable to be brought in to contact," and in gong lum v. rice (1927) the Court explained Roberts as having sustained "the separation of colored and white schools under a state constitutional injunction of equal protection, the same as the fourteenth amendment. …"

Roberts arose as a test case to determine the validity of Boston's requirement that black children attend segregated schools. charles sumner, attacking that requirement, denied that a racially separate school could be equal, because it imposed a stigma of caste and fostered prejudice.

Shaw, for a unanimous Supreme Judicial Court, agreed that the case presented the question whether the separate schools for blacks violated their constitutional right to equality. But he reasoned that all rights must depend on laws adapted to the "respective relations and conditions" of individuals. He believed that the school committee had exercised "a discriminating and honest judgment" in deciding that the good of both races was best promoted by the separate education of their children. The law, Shaw said in reply to Sumner, did not create prejudice, probably could not change it, and might only foster it by "compelling" both races to attend "the same schools." Thus, by a singular absence of considered judgment, the court found no constitutional violation of equal protection in compulsory racial segregation as long as blacks had an equal right to attend public schools.

Leonard W. Levy

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