Prelude to Brown - 1849: Roberts v. The City of Boston

Earliest reported case - 1849: Roberts v. The City of Boston

Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts by the late 1700s. As a result of this action Boston schools were not segregated. However, African Americans felt they were at a disadvantage because white teachers and students in the integrated schools harassed and mistreated African American children. In the face of this discrimination, parents petitioned for special schools for their children. Their efforts to have a segregated school were denied by the state legislature. Consequently, the first segregated school for African American children was privately established in 1798. By 1840, there was growing concern about the prejudice fostered by separate schools. Two years later African American parents began publicly expressing resentment because they were taxed to support schools which their children were not allowed to attend. These parents began petition drives to close down the segregated schools. They petitioned in 1845, and again in 1846 and 1848 without success. The final effort was undertaken in 1849 under the legal leadership of attorneys Charles Sumner, who went on to become a United States Senator, and Robert Morris, an African American activist who shared the title abolitionist with his colleagues. Although this was a joint community action, the lead plaintiff was Benjamin Roberts. The case became known as Roberts v. The City of Boston. In their petition to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, attorneys for the African American parents outlined the circumstances believed to be unlawful. Parents explained how their children had been denied enrollment in all Boston schools except the segregated Smith School. However a state statute existed that allowed any student unlawfully excluded from public school to recover damages. The Roberts case was unsuccessful because authorities reasoned that special provisions had been made for "colored" students to have a school.

Support for their cause finally came from city officials when in April 1855 a bill was presented and passed by the Massachusetts legislature. This action provided that no distinction based on color, race or religion should be made for any student applying for admission to any public school in the state.

Read the Roberts opinion.

View a scanned copy of the Roberts Opinion.