The Impact Center for Public Interest Law is celebrating Black History Month by paying tribute to the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement from the 18th and 19th Centuries who used the power of law to challenge slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow, or who faced the wrath of the law for trying to do so. These accounts demonstrate the power of human agency to make change, even under oppressive circumstances, and inform our continued efforts to challenge racial injustice. We’re proud to share the first in a series of these short reports:
Roberts v. Boston: Challenging School Desegregation in Boston

In 1848, a brave 4-year-old girl and her civil rights activist father teamed up with the second Black lawyer in the United States and a famous abolitionist lawyer to challenge school segregation in Boston. Although they lost their case, their arguments led to legislation prohibiting school segregation in Massachusetts and laid the groundwork for the decision in Brown v. Board of Education that segregating schools by race violated the Equal Protection Clause.       

Boston operated an extensive public school system in 1848, including 161 primary schools. Four-year-old Sarah Roberts applied for admission to the primary school closest to her home, but Roberts was rejected because she was Black and education officials had designated her local school for white students only. The school committee assigned Roberts to one of Boston’s two primary schools for Black children. On her commute to that school, she would have had to walk past five primary schools for white children.      

Her father, Benjamin Roberts, a printer and civil rights activist, worked his way through three layers of the school committee’s bureaucracy to challenge his daughter’s school assignment, but he was rebuffed each time. Undaunted, Sarah reported to her local school on her first day of class. The teacher refused not only refused to admit her but actually reported her to the police, who arrested her and brought her to the segregated school.     

Benjamin Roberts retained Robert Morris, a prominent civil rights attorney and the second Black lawyer in the United States, to represent himself and his daughter in a lawsuit against the city of Boston. Morris sued pursuant to a Massachusetts statute that created a cause of action against a municipality that unlawfully denied a student admission to one of its schools. The trial court dismissed the case.

Plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and Morris invited civil rights lawyer Charles Sumner to argue the appeal. Sumner took the case pro bono. Invoking arguments later used in Brown v. Board, Sumner argued that segregating schools by race created a caste system and was inherently unequal. Even though the “matters taught in [segregated schools] may be precisely the same,” he wrote, they inevitably differ in “spirit and character from the public school . . . where all classes meet together in equality.”      

Though the Court ruled against Benjamin and Sarah Roberts, their determined advocacy led to meaningful change. The case put pressure on the Massachusetts legislature, which passed legislation six years later prohibiting racially segregated schools. And more than 100 years later, the Court in Brown ruled that segregating schools by race created a caste system and that racially segregated schools are inherently unequal.   

--Katerina Pluhacek Garcia provided research assistance for this report.      


Mary Sarah Bilder & Laurel Davis, The Library of Robert Morris, Antebellum Civil Rights Lawyer and Activist, 111 Law Library J. 461 (2019). 
Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Library of Congress, Equality before the law, unconstitutionality of separate schools in Massachusetts, (last visited, Feb. 20, 2021).  

Roberts v. Boston, 59 Mass. 198 (1849). 

Richard D. Marsico, Director

Swati Parikh, Executive Director, Office of Public Service and Pro Bono Initiatives

Jarienn James ’17, Law and Policy Program Coordinator 

Andrew Scherer, Policy Director 

Melissa Toback Levin ’19, Lewis Steel Racial Justice Project Fellow

Rachel Welt ’20, Lewis Steel Racial Justice Project Fellow
New York Law School
Impact Center for Public Interest Law
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