Opinion - Roberts

Sarah C. Roberts v. The City of Boston

The general school committee of the city of Boston have power, under the constitution and laws of this commonwealth, to make provision for the instruction of colored children, in separate schools established exclusively for them, and to prohibit their attendance upon the other schools.

This was an action on the case, brought by Sarah C. Roberts, an infant, who sued by Benjamin F. Roberts, her father and next friend, against the city of Boston, under the statute of 1845, c. 214, which provides that any child, unlawfully excluded from public school instruction in this commonwealth, shall recover damages therefor against the city or town by which such public instruction is supported.

The case was submitted to the court of common pleas, from whence it came to this court by appeal, upon the following statement of facts:--

"Under the system of public schools established in the city of Boston, primary schools are supported by the city, for the instruction of all children residing therein between the ages of four and seven years. For this purpose, the city is divided for convenience, but not by geographical lines, into twenty-one districts, in each of which are several primary schools making the whole number of primary schools in the city of Boston one hundred and sixty-one. These schools are under the immediate management and superintendence of the primary school committee, so far as that committee has authority, by virtue of the powers conferred by votes of the general school committee.

"At a meeting of the general school committee, held on the 12th of January, 1848, the following vote was passed:-- "Resolved, that the primary school committee be, and they hereby ere, authorized to organize their body and regulate their proceedings as they may deem most convenient; and to fill all vacancies occurring in the same, and to remove any of their members at their discretion during the ensuing year; and that this board will cheerfully receive from said committee such communications as they may have occasion to make."

"The city of Boston is not divided into territorial school districts; and the general school committee, by the city charter, have the care and superintendence of the public schools. In the various grammar and primary schools, white children do not always or necessarily go to the schools nearest their residences; and in the case of the Latin and English high schools (one of each of which is established in the city) most of the children are obliged to go beyond the school-houses nearest their residences.
"The regulations of the primary school committee contain the following provisions:--

"ADMISSIONS. No pupil shall be admitted into a primary school, without a ticket of admission from a member of the district committee.

"ADMISSIONS OF APPLICANTS. Every member of the committee shall admit to his school, all applicants, of suitable age and qualifications, residing nearest to the school under his charge, (excepting those for whom special provision has been made,) provided the number in his school will warrant the admission.

"SCHOLARS TO GO TO SCHOOLS NEAREST THEIR RESIDENCES. Applicants for admission to the schools, (with the exception and provision referred to in the preceding rule,) are especially entitled to enter the schools nearest to their places of residence."

"At the time of the plaintiff's application, as hereinafter mentioned, for admission to the primary school, the city of Boston had established, for the exclusive use of colored children, two primary schools, one in Belknap street, in the eighth school district, and one in Sun Court street, in the second school district.

"The colored population of Boston constitute less than one sixty-second part of the entire population of the city. For half a century, separate schools have been kept in Boston for colored children, and the primary school for colored children in Belknap street was established in 1820, and has been kept there ever since. The teachers of this school have the same compensation and qualifications as in other like schools in the city. Schools for colored children were originally established at the request of colored citizens, whose children could not attend the public schools, on account of the prejudice then existing against them.

"The plaintiff is a colored child, of five years of age, a resident of Boston, and living with her father, since the month of March, 1847, in Andover street, in the sixth primary school district. In the month of April, 1847, she being of suitable age and qualifications, (unless her color was a disqualification,) applied to a member of the district primary school committee, having under his charge the primary school nearest to her place of residence, for a ticket of admission to that school, the number of scholars therein warranting her admission, and no special provision having been made for her, unless the establishment of the two schools for colored children exclusively, is to be so considered.

"The member of the school committee, to whom the plaintiff applied, refused her application on the ground of her being a colored person, and of the, special provision made as aforesaid. The plaintiff thereupon applied to the primary school committee of the district, for admission to one of their schools, and was in like manner refused admission, on the ground of her color and the provision aforesaid. She thereupon petitioned the general primary school committee, for leave to enter one of the schools nearest her residence. That committee referred the subject to the committee of the district, with full powers, and the committee of the district thereupon again refused the plaintiff's application, on the sole ground of color and the special provision aforesaid, and the plaintiff has not since attended any school in Boston. Afterwards, on the 15th of February, 1848, the plaintiff went into the primary school nearest her residence, but without any ticket of admission or other leave granted, and was on that day ejected from the school by the teacher.

"The school established in Belknap street is twenty-one hundred feet, distant from, the residence of the plaintiff, measuring through the streets; and in passing from the plaintiff's residence to the Belknap street school, the direct route passes the ends of two streets in which there are five primary schools.