...in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the doctrine of separate but equal. "Segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race . . . deprives the children of a minority group of equal educational opportunities," the justices ruled in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1848 Boston's black community had turned to the courts to integrate the city's public schools. In ruling against them, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court asserted that separate was equal. The cause was won only when the fight moved from the courts to the state legislature, which voted to outlaw segregated public schools in 1855. A century later, attorneys in Brown v. Board used some of the same arguments lawyers had made in the Boston case.
Shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 1783 that slavery was incompatible with the new state's constitution, African Americans began seeking equal access to public schooling. They understood that education was critical to economic, social, and political equality.
No Massachusetts statute called for segregated schools, and at first black children attended school with white children. There they experienced the same harassment and hostility that their parents encountered in everyday life. Misbehaving white children were sent to what was commonly called the "nigger seat" or told they were "worse than . . . little nigger[s]." As a result, first in 1787 and then again in 1800, Boston's black community petitioned the School Committee for a separate school. The petitions were denied.
In 1798 the city's African-American leaders organized and funded their own school the African School. Classes were held first in a private home and later in the basement of the new African Meeting House. A few years later, Abiel Smith, a white merchant, left a bequest to the city of Boston for the education of black students. Renamed the Smith School in honor of its benefactor, the school was incorporated into the Boston school system. Twenty years later a new Abiel Smith School was built on Joy Street (where it stands today). It was the first public school building in the country erected for the education of black children.
It soon became apparent that the School Committee had no intention of providing the Smith School with resources equal to those given the city's white schools. At one point, while most white schools had several hundred books in their libraries, the Smith School had one. It received half the funding of white schools. Most of the faculty was white, and many of the teachers were poorly prepared. In addition, parents charged that the white man who served as headmaster from 1833 to 1844 held "opinions of the intellectual character of the colored race of people that disqualify him to be a teacher of colored children."
In 1844, under the leadership of activist William Cooper Nell, black Bostonians began a campaign for integrated schools. Nell was a staunch integrationist who was active in a wide range of causes on behalf of African Americans, locally and nationally. His name, more than any other, is associated with the long struggle to integrate Boston schools. His own experiences caused him to make a vow that, "God helping me, I would do my best to hasten the day when the color of my skin would be no barrier to equal school rights."
Although a small minority of black Bostonians favored a separate school, where their children would be protected from abuse, the drive for integration gained momentum. Activists sent petitions to the legislature and to the School Committee stating that separate schools were "contrary to the laws of the Commonwealth." The committee responded that separate schools were legal and right and, most importantly, "best adapted to promote the education of [the black] class of our population."
African-American parents vehemently disagreed. In 1844 they began an 11-year boycott, setting up classes for their children in a black church; attendance at the Smith School dropped from 263 in 1840 to 51 in 1849.
In 1848 Benjamin Roberts, a black printer and community activist, decided to sue the Boston School Committee. He hired Robert Morris, one of the first black lawyers in the country and only the second African American admitted to the Massachusetts bar, to represent him.
In Roberts v. The City of Boston, Morris argued that Benjamin Roberts's five-year-old daughter Sarah walked past five segregated white schools en route to the Smith School a violation, he charged, of an 1845 statute making it unlawful for a child to be "excluded from public schools in the Commonwealth." Morris also demonstrated that the black school was inferior. In ruling against him, the court noted that Sarah Roberts did have a school to attend even though it was further away from her home.
Benjamin Roberts, Robert Morris, and William Cooper Nell decided to appeal the decision to the Supreme Judicial Court and asked the white lawyer, reformer, and future United States Senator Charles Sumner to help. This time their brief also addressed the issue of social and racial caste. Sumner presented his case with his characteristic eloquence, pointing out that white children were also "injured by the separation," because they are "taught to regard a portion of the human family . . . as a separate and degraded class." He asserted that "a school exclusively devoted to one class must differ essentially in spirit and character" from a school which all children attend. "It is a mockery to call it equivalent," he concluded.
In March 1850 the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that segregated schools did not "deepen and perpetuate" racial caste and discrimination. Racial prejudice, wrote Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, "is not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law." He conceded that all citizens should have "equality before the law," as Sumner had argued, but this did not mean that there could not be separate schools for black children.
In 1850 Boston's public schools were the only ones in Massachusetts that were still segregated. For black Bostonians, the fight was not over. Nell, Morris, and others turned to the legislature; in 1855 they won passage of a law that forbid public schools from making distinction "on account of race, color, or religious opinions" when a student sought admission. The black community celebrated.
But Lemuel Shaw's ruling had dealt a serious blow to African Americans by setting forth the "separate but equal" doctrine. In the late nineteenth century, many state courts would refer to the decision in denying black children access to white schools. In the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896, the Supreme Court used Shaw's decision as a precedent when it established the "separate but equal" doctrine that would be the law of the land for another 58 years.
After 1855, all public schools in Massachusetts were integrated, at least by law. However, the gains won in the legislature proved difficult to sustain. The Commonwealth has continued to struggle with de facto school segregation until the present day.
Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, by James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton (Holmes and Meir, 1979).
Sarah's Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America, by Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick (Beacon Press, 2005).
Website of the Boston African American National Historic Site.
Supreme Judicial Court Historical Society website.