Charles Sumner Made the Case Against Segregated Schools a Century Before Brown

Roundup: Talking About History

Suzanne Sataline, in the Boston Globe (May 9, 2004)

In a footnote in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court reported that the "separate but equal" doctrine it was overturning in public education "apparently originated" in an 1849 ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court in a Massachusetts case, Roberts v. City of Boston.

"For Boston, it was the first attempt to integrate the schools," said Thomas O'Connor, a historian and professor emeritus of Boston College. "These people actually made a case that racial segregation was wrong."

Benjamin F. Roberts, a black man, attempted to enroll his 5-year-old daughter, Sarah, in a primary school for whites. The school denied her application, as did the School Committee. Roberts refused to place her in one of the two black schools, saying there were several schools for whites closer to the family's home near the current site of the O'Neill Federal Building downtown. He sought help from the Court of Common Pleas, which sided with the city, before appealing to the SJC.

Charles Sumner, a Harvard-trained lawyer who was soon to become a US senator, argued for Roberts before the SJC that the School Committee did not have the power to discriminate. Barring black students, he argued, was "in the nature of caste, and is a violation of equality. . . . The committee cannot assume, without individual examination, that an entire race possess certain moral or intellectual qualities, which render it proper to place them all in a class by themselves."

Sumner also challenged the notion that separate could be equal, saying that "although the matters taught in the two schools may be precisely the same, a school exclusively devoted to one class must differ essentially, in its spirit and character, from that public school known to the law, where all classes meet together in equality."

But the justices were loath to trample local powers. They deferred to the conclusion of the superintendent and school committee that "the good of both classes of schools will be best promoted, by maintaining the separate primary schools for colored and for white children."

The Legislature unraveled the decision in 1855, outlawing school segregation in the state.

In 1896, the US Supreme Court enshrined the "separate but equal" doctrine as the law of the land in Plessy v. Ferguson. That stood until the Brown decision in 1954.

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