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Roberts v. City of Boston: 1848-49 - Suit Challenges Segregated Schools, Court Backs Segregation, Suggestions For Further Reading

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Plaintiffs: Sarah Roberts, Benjamin F. Roberts
Defendant: Boston, Massachusetts
Plaintiff's Lawyer: Charles Sumner
Defendant's Lawyer: Peleg Chandler
Judge: Lemuel Shaw
Place: Boston, Massachusetts
Date of Trial: 1848-1849
Decision: The court nonsuited the plaintiff, in effect dismissing the case

SIGNIFICANCE: The Roberts case established the principle of "separate but equal" and validated segregation in public schools, providing the basis and rationale for the United States Supreme Court's infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision nearly 50 years later.

When most people think of segregated schooling, they think of the American South during the first half of the twentieth century. But one of the earliest court rulings to uphold separate schools for African-American children came a hundred years earlier in Boston, Massachusetts.

The schools themselves had their origins in the late 1700s, when Boston's black community asked the city to establish them, since black children who attended white schools were subjected to hostility and prejudice. At first the request was refused; later, white philanthropic efforts helped create such a school, and in 1820, Boston made it a part of the public school system. A second black school was established in 1831.

White public schools, meanwhile, flourished in Boston. By the 1840s, the city had more than 150 primary schools for white children. Together with the two black schools, they were under the control of a General School Committee, which state law empowered to operate the educational system and distribute the students at its sole discretion. But the black schools' facilities were in much worse condition than those of their white counterparts; at the same time, antisegregationist sentiment had started to grow in Boston's black community, which had reversed its earlier views on having separate schools. In 1846 black residents petitioned the General School Committee to end the segregation, but the committee denied the request.

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