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(1849) Charles Sumner, “Equality Before the Law: Unconstitutionality of Separate Colored Schools in Massachusetts”

In 1848 Benjamin Roberts filed a lawsuit against the city of Boston on behalf of his five year old daughter, Sarah, who was denied admission to schools in her neighborhood and instead assigned to the lone all-black school in the city.  Two attorneys, Robert Morris, one of the first black lawyers in the nation, and Charles Sumner, who would later become U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, took the case and argued it all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court which in 1849 ruled against the plaintiff, Sarah Roberts.  Benjamin Roberts continued his campaign against segregated schools and consequently, six years later, in 1855, the Massachusetts legislature became the first in the nation to ban racially segregated schools.  The 1848-49 Roberts case is generally acknowledged as the first legal action against segregated schools in the United States.  The argument of Charles Sumner before the Massachusetts Supreme Court appears below.

May it please your Honors:

Can any discrimination on account of race or color be made among children entitled to the benefit of our Common Schools under the Constitution and Laws of Massachusetts? This is the question which the Court is now to hear, to consider, and to decide.

Or, stating the question with more detail and with more particular application to the facts of the present case, are the Committee having superintendence of the Common Schools of Boston intrusted with power, under the Constitution and Laws of Massachusetts, to exclude colored children from the schools and compel them to find education at separate schools set apart for colored children only, at distances from their homes less convenient than schools open to white children?

This important question arises in an action by a colored child only five years old who, by her next friend, sues the city of Boston for damages on account of a refusal to receive her into one of the Common Schools.

It would be difficult to imagine any case appealing more strongly to your best judgment, whether you regard the parties or the