Examination of a little-known civil-rights lawsuit brought in 1848 that, although rebuffed, anticipated the desegregation victory in Brown v. Board of Education more than a century later.
The Sarah Roberts case will be unfamiliar to most Americans, and all its principal participants, with the possible exception of abolitionist lawyer (and later Senator) Charles Sumner, have been largely forgotten. Sumner was enlisted by 25-year-old Robert Morris, the first black attorney to win a jury trial in the US, to provide experienced guidance in a suit brought against the City of Boston by Sarah and Benjamin Roberts on behalf of their daughter Sarah. The five-year-old Sarah, denied entry at the school closest to her home, was forced to walk past four other white-only schools on her way to Smith School, an overcrowded, under-resourced facility for blacks only. The case reached the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, where legendary Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, in ruling segregation legal under the Constitution, concocted the “separate but equal” concept that would later buttress the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision producing John Marshall Harlan’s prophetic lone dissent—“Our constitution is color-blind.” The Roberts family and their attorneys, however, wouldn’t quit pursuing legislation finally enacted in 1855 that outlawed segregation—though not de facto—in Massachusetts schools forever, producing a flood of racist vitriol from northern newspapers. Minister and novelist Stephen Kendrick (Night Watch, 2001) and NAACP Washington, DC, chapter president Paul Kendrick paint a carefully framed, evocative portrait of the middle-class black community that had been ensconced on Beacon Hill since Revolutionary times. It was this community that provided the majority of recruits to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry which, when decimated at the Civil War battle of Fort Wagner, near Charleston (subject of the popular 1989 film Glory), exploded the popular notion that blacks were inferior in combat.
New depth in the legacy of America’s struggle for equal rights.