fb-pixel Skip to main content

How Roberts v. City of Boston set a precedent to uphold racial segregation in schools

The Abiel Smith School, the first public school established for Black children in the United States, has remained as a reminder of Boston's history of racial segregation today.Engraving from the Boston Athenaeum; photo by John Tlumacki/Globe staff

This Black History Month, the Globe is saluting people who have made a difference in Massachusetts.

In 1847, 5-year-old Sarah Roberts walked past five elementary schools every day on her way to the segregated public school the City of Boston required her to attend.

The Abiel Smith School on Beacon Hill was one of a number of all-Black schools in the city, and it was far from where the Roberts family lived. Sarah had been denied enrollment in every other public school in Boston, according to copies of court filings.

In an effort to enroll Sarah at a school closer to home, Benjamin Roberts, Sarah’s father, decided to challenge the city’s school committee policy on racial segregation. Roberts sued the city, and the case of Roberts v. The City of Boston would go on to define the struggle to desegregate schools in America for the next century.

In 1849, Roberts’ lawyer Robert Morris, one of the country’s first Black lawyers, wrote that under Commonwealth statutes, “any child unlawfully excluded from public school shall recover damages therefore against the city or town by which such public instruction is supported.”


Morris and co-counsel Charles Sumner, who went on to become a US Senator, argued that the constitution of Massachusetts held all people, without distinction of race, equal before the law, and that the state’s public school laws also made no distinctions.

“[Education] in … two schools may be precisely the same, but a school devoted to one class must differ essentially in spirit and character from [one] where all classes met together in equality … Prejudice is the child of ignorance … sure to prevail where people do not know each other,” Sumner argued before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in 1849.

But the effort was unsuccessful. In 1850, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that racial segregation of public schools was permitted under the Massachusetts constitution and laws. Shaw declared that racial prejudice “is not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law.”


The Massachusetts court then established a precedent that other state supreme courts would follow.

In 1896, the US Supreme Court referenced the Roberts case as an example to uphold racial segregation and the “separate but equal” doctrine in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The case determined that racially segregated public facilities were legal, as long as the facilities for Black people and white people were equal.

Although Sarah and Benjamin Roberts lost their legal case in the Massachusetts courts, their efforts set the stage for over a century of struggle, culminating in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in which justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. Brown v. Board of Education was one of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement and helped establish the precedent that “separate but equal” education and other services were not equal at all.

Brittany Bowker can be reached at brittany.bowker@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @brittbowker and on Instagram @brittbowker.