Home > Uncategorized > February 15 – School Segregation in the Courts

February 15 – School Segregation in the Courts

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954 was a landmark Supreme Court decision which declared the segregation of black and white students in public schools to be unconstitutional. Prior to this, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 had legally granted states the right to sponsor segregation. But legal battles over school segregation predate even Plessy v. Ferguson. The very first documented school-integration lawsuit was filed in 1848, and this story began 163 years ago today…

On February 15, 1848, in Boston, Massachusetts, a five-year-old Black girl named Sarah Roberts was barred from attending any of the nearby White schools. As a result, she had to walk clear across town to the Smith Grammar School, passing 5 other primary schools along the way. Her father, Benjamin Roberts, was unsatisfied with the condition and the quality of his daughter’s school, and tried on four separate occasions to enroll her in one of the closer schools. He was four times denied. Undeterred, he then proceeded to file suit on her behalf, enlisting the help of Robert Morris, a prominent Black lawyer in the Boston legal community.

A year later,Roberts v. The City of Boston came before Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, who ruled in favor of the defense. According to Shaw, racial prejudice was “not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law,” and that ultimately, segregation of public schools was legally permitted by the US Constitution. Other Southern state supreme courts were quick to follow suit, and it was this legal precedent that led to the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

More than 100 years would pass before other children like Sarah Roberts were given the legal right to attend integrated schools.

thanks for reading,


Robert Morris(L) and co-counsel Charles Sumner (C), argued that separate schools could never be equal. Lemuel Shaw (R) disagreed.

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