Black History: Special Delivery!!

Roberts v. The City of Boston was a court action litigated by attorney Charles Sumner, a white abolitionist lawyer, and Robert Morris, an African American lawyer and abolitionist in 1849. Morris was one of the country’s first African American attorneys.  Slavery had been abolished in the 1700’s in the state of Massachusetts.  So schools were not segregated.  However, African American children faced much discrimination and mistreatment in the desegregated schools they attended.  African American parents sought to improve treatment of their children in public schools.  When this did not happen, they petitioned to have their own separate schools established in 1798.  The initial request was denied by the state.  However white philanthropic donors decided to fund the school.  Two schools for blacks were established, one in 1820 and a second in 1831. New schools for white children continued to open and by the 1850’s there were only 150 and only 2 schools for black children. All of these schools were controlled by the State who appointed the General School Committee to provide oversight.  The schools for blacks were not maintained well and were in poor condition compared to the schools for whites.

Even after the establishment of the two schools for black children, there remained growing concerns about the racism and prejudice that was exacerbated by having separate schools. Blacks in the community then began to support integration of schools because their children were still not receiving adequate support even in a segregated school setting.  African American parents also voiced their displeasure that they were being taxed for schools that their children were not allowed to attend.  African American parents started a petition to close down the private/segregated schools unsuccessfully on 3 separate occasions in 1845, 1846, and 1848 so that their children would be allowed to attend the schools that whites were allowed to attend.  A final effort was also made in 1849 lead by attorney Charles Sumner and Robert Morris an African American activist and abolitionist when they took on the case of Sarah Roberts who was 5 years old.  Benjamin Roberts, Sarah’s father had attempted to enroll her in a white school (closer to her home then the school for blacks she was attending) 4 times.  Each time she was denied enrollment which resulted in Benjamin Roberts filing a law suit. The lawsuit represented the concerns of many African American families.


Robert Smith


Charles Sumner


Sumner and Morris argued in Roberts’ case that the state statute held that any person denied enrollment in public schools could collect damages. The case was heard by Supreme Court Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw.  The petition, however was denied, with the court siting that an alternative had been provided in having segregated schools for African American children.  The African American community was stunned and saddened by this defeat.  African American parents in Boston refused to give up and organized protests statewide as well as a school boycott.  The Supreme Court decision upholding segregation in Boston greatly impacted attempts to desegregate schools in other parts of the country as well.  In 1855 the first law in the country was passed by the Massachusetts legislature, prohibiting school segregation. Unfortunately, the case would aid in implementing “separate but equal” practices.  The Roberts v. City of Boston would precede the Plessy vs. Ferguson court case which would follow 50 years later.  Desegregation of schools would not be officially overturned until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Case in 1954.



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