February 15

February 15


February 15, 1848

Boston Public Schools Bar Sarah Roberts

Though not as well-known as other cases, Roberts vs. City of Boston has the distinction of being the nation's first school integration lawsuit as well as providing a basis for the separate-but-equal doctrine that maintained segregated public schools in many American communities until 1954.

Sarah Roberts was 5 years old, and had to walk past five white schools en route to the black primary school where she was assigned. Her father, Benjamin, tried several times to enroll her in a white school closer to home, the first time on this date in 1848, but Sarah was turned away.

Subsequently, he sued the city of Boston on behalf of his daughter, but lost his case in the Massachusetts Supreme Court. There was considerable public outcry against the decision, and in 1855, the Massachusetts legislature banned the assignment of pupils to public schools based on race. (While legislative action overturned the Massachusetts court decision, the impact of the court's opinion survived. It was one of the cases cited by the U.S. Supreme Court when it upheld the separate-but-equal doctrine in Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1897. That doctrine remained on the books until the decision in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.)

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