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(1855) William C. Nell, “The Triumph Of Equal School Rights In Boston”

In September 1855, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts ruled in Boston v. Roberts that a separate school could not be maintained at taxpayer expense by the city of Boston. This decision marked the first significant victory in what would be a 99 year struggle to end de jure segregation culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. That struggle, however was in the future. On the night of December 17, 1855, Boston’s activists celebrated their victory at a dinner in honor of William C. Nell, the leader in the school desegregation campaign. At the end of the dinner Nell made the following remarks.

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen: The struggle for Equal School Rights, which for so long a series of years has taxed our hearts, our heads and our hands, having, through the aid of many friends, at length been triumphantly successful, it was but natural that the gratitude of parents and children should desire to make some record of the emotions awakened by such a signal and public good. With partial kindness, you have been pleased to make me the recipient of these honours, in recognition of the humble services it was my privilege to render the cause we all have loved so well.

Any attempt to express the feelings which swell my heart at this, the proudest moment of my life, it is no affection to say, would be wholly unavailing. Your own hearts can best interpret mine. To be surrounded by such a constellation of friends from various walks of life, comprising those who have known me from early boyhood, and those of but recent acquaintance—realizing the fact that this is their united testimonial, approving my course in so glorious a reform—to be elaborate on such a theme calls for abilities far transcending any that I possess. I should be doing injustice, however, to my own sense of right were I to allow the occasion to pass without referring to others whose words and deed, in promotion of the movement, should engrave their names indelibly upon the tablets of our memory.

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