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Roberts v. Boston, 59 Mass. (5 Cush.) 198 (1850), was a lawsuit seeking to end racial discrimination in Boston public schools. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of Boston, finding no constitutional basis for the suit. The case was later cited by the US Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the "separate but equal" standard.

The 2004 book, Sarah's Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America, co-authored by Stephen and Paul Kendrick, explores this case, along with its social and political context.


About the case

Roberts vs. Boston (1848–1849) is a case about a five year old African-American girl, Sarah Roberts. She was enrolled in an all black common school called The Smith School. The school was far away from the girls home in Boston, Massachusetts, and as a generality the common schools that African-Americans went to were dilapidated and underfunded, sometimes they were even a safety hazard to the children that attended. As a result, her father, Benjamin F. Roberts, also African-American, attempted to apply her to other schools that were closer in proximity to her home where there student population was white. She was denied on the basis of her race and was actually physically removed from one of the schools. He proceeded to write to the state legislature, and the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, where Benjamin Roberts listed his daughter Sarah as the Plaintiff against the Defendant Boston, Massachusetts. In doing so, not all African-Americans thought this was a good idea because in this time, most of them supported "separate but equal" schooling and questioned what kind of education their African-American children would get from a White teacher. The Defendant's attorney was Peleg Chandler and the Plaintiff's attorneys were Charles Sumner and Robert Morris, one of the countries first African-American lawyers, and the judge was Lemuel Shaw. Charles Sumner argued the psychological trauma the girl would feel having to go to an all black, run down school and having to walk so far as a mere four year old, but despite his best efforts Shaw ruled against the Plaintiff.

However, Roberts brought the same issue up to the state legislature with the help of his lawyer Charles Sumner and they ruled in favor of Roberts and in 1855, the state of Massachusetts banned segregated schools in the entire state. This was the first law against segregated schools in the country.

This case is of extreme importance because this was the first trial case about school segregation and indirectly related to the 1855 ban of segregated schools in all of the state of Massachusetts and the 1954 ban on segregated schools nationally.


  • 1896, Case of Plessy v. Ferguson: ruled in favor of "separate but equal" schools for blacks citing the ruling in the case Roberts v. Boston
  • 1954, Case of Brown v. Board of Board of Education: ruled against "separate but equal" citing the arguments of Charles Sumner in his later case dealing with Sarah Roberts and finally had integrated schools nationwide.


  • Finkelman, Paul. "Segregation in the United States." Encarta MSN. 2008. Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 11 Feb 2009.
  • Roberts v. City of Boston: 1848-49. 2009. 11 Feb 2009.
  • Douglas, Davison M. Jim Crow Moves North: The Battle over Northern School Segregation, 1865-1954. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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