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1850 One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

Separate but Equal

On April 8 the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts delivered its opinion in Sarah C. Roberts v. The City of Boston , America’s first major school desegregation case. The plaintiff was a five-year-old girl who had been refused enrollment at Boston’s white public schools and steered to a black one far from her home. Her legal team included a pair of prominent civil rights activists: Robert Morris, the nation’s second black lawyer, who in 1851 would be arrested for helping to free a fugitive slave, and Charles Sumner, who was soon to begin a twenty-three-year Senate career during which he would be severely assaulted and seriously injured by a Southern congressman for his vigorous criticism of slavery.

The question had excited controversy in Boston for several years. The abolitionist Wendell Phillips railed against making “distinctions utterly repugnant to the spirit and letter of our [state] constitution and laws. . . . If it be a fact that the best interests of the white and colored children can only be secured by separate schools, then their best interests cannot be secured under any system of public State institutions.”

Segregation had its supporters as well. Thomas P. Smith, a graduate of Boston’s all-black Abiel Smith School, said such academies could be “extremely politic, expedient, and useful” in the face of white racism. Indeed, many Bostonians recalled that the city’s first black school had been established by parents unwilling to subject their children to a white-run institution. But Smith had few allies within his race. An 1849 meeting of black citizens resoundingly condemned the “evil machinations” of “Smith and his abettors (the white wire-pullers and the colored wire-pulled).”

Sumner’s eloquent argument before the court cited the Declaration of Independence ("All men are created equal") and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights ("All men are born free and equal") to reject caste-based distinctions. “No person can be created , no person can be born , with civil or political privileges, not enjoyed equally by all his fellow-citizens,” he said. As a practical matter the small number of schools open to blacks required them to travel great distances; Sarah passed five white schools on her way to the nearest black one.

But worst of all, Sumner said, the system of parallel schools degraded blacks by reinforcing their sense of exclusion: “Shut out by a still lingering prejudice from many social advantages,—a despised class,—they feel this proscription from the Public Schools as a peculiar brand.” He appealed to the court to complete the work of more than a half-century of reformers: “You have already banished Slavery from this Commonwealth. I call upon you now to obliterate the last of its footprints . . .”

Speaking for a unanimous court, the chief justice, Lemuel Shaw, rejected Sumner’s reasoning. Equality before the law, he said, did not require identical treatment in all situations. The needs and abilities of the black and white races differed as manifestly as those of old and young, scholars and tradesmen, or males and females, and since separate schools existed to serve these different groups, so too could the city establish separate schools for black and white children.

The practical effect of the case in Massachusetts was small. Boston was the only place in the state that still had segregated schools, and in 1855 the legislature settled the question for good by banning them. Other parts of the country, however, would have to wait a century to shake off Shaw’s decision. Even after passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, the separate-but-equal doctrine was cited to justify school segregation by at least eleven state courts, from Nevada in 1872 to New York in 1883 to South Carolina and Oregon in 1913. Federal courts also relied on Shaw’s reasoning, most importantly in the 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson , which formed the legal basis for segregated public accommodations until a later Supreme Court began to dismantle Jim Crow with its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education .

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