High School Unit I

Lesson C: The Fight for Equal Education, 1800–1855: Two Case Studies of School Desegregation

Key Questions

  1. Where were black children educated in early nineteenth-century Massachusetts?
  2. What educational inequities did black children face in Massachusetts?
  3. How did African American communities challenge these inequities?
  4. Who were some of the key individuals involved in the struggle to desegregate Massachusetts schools?
  5. What influence did the Roberts v. The City of Boston case have on later U.S. Supreme Court decisions?

Primary Sources

Document HS I-11: An Appeal to Fellow Citizens: Excerpts from "Address by the Colored Inhabitants of Nantucket" in the Inquirer, March 5, 1842

Document HS I-11: An Appeal to Fellow Citizens: Excerpts from "Address by the Colored Inhabitants of Nantucket" in the Inquirer, March 5, 1842

ADDRESS To the School Committee, and other Inhabitants of the Town of Nantucket…

This Commonwealth [of Massachusetts] is, or may be considered, as a large society, having an instrument called a Constitution. This instrument is intended to express the object of the association, and defines the obligations under which its members have come in respect to each other. It expresses the manner in which that object is to be accomplished; that is, it declares what the individual promises to do for the society, and what the society promises to do for the individual, and the object for which the association is formed. We have a code of laws, which are supposed to be agreeable with the spirit of the Constitution in general. Having made the above remarks, we now take for granted that the Constitution and laws of this Commonwealth make no distinction among its citizens on account of complexion or symmetry. If this be acknowledged, then we infer that the Constitution and law of this State recognise (sic) the equality of its citizens in respect to rights.

Again, whatever system may be formed or arrangements made for the benefit of the members of this Commonwealth, let it be the common school system, or any other system by which its inhabitants may be benefitted (sic) or improved, the inference is, that all are to enjoy the advantages to be derived from them on equal terms, in the same manner, and in the same amount. This inference, we presume our citizens will acknowledge to be reasonable and just, unless any one will attempt to show that God created man with as great a variety of rights as there are distinctions of color and form, and that society has a right to proportion the privileges of its members upon such considerations. This assumption is so big with absurdity that it needs no argument to make its inconsistency apparent….

[T]here is no proscriptive act that we know of to prevent the colored citizens enjoying the common school system of education, in the same manner, and in the same amount, that it is enjoyed by our more favored fellow citizens.

But do we enjoy it because it is lawful that we should? While our more favored fellow citizens… enjoy every benefit that the common school system holds out, while we are all rejected, and that contrary to our laws, because it has pleased the good Creator to make our complexions differ from those of others of our fellow citizens. If this be the ground of our exclusion, as we have stated, and we think that our statement is undeniable, then we will most respectfully, ask this intelligent and Christian community who know this is to be the ground of our exclusion, is it right, is it just?…

[W]e are by the Constitution and laws acknowledged to be citizens, and consequently entitled to all the rights and privileges in common with other citizens, and then that for a mere accident, the difference of complexion, we are denied the right or privilege of education in common with our fellow citizens; we must pronounce it to be unkind, unjust….

We here submit these remarks to the inhabitants of the town of Nantucket, hoping that the day is not far distant, when the good sense and christianity (sic) of this republic will proceed to make its distinctions in Society on just and reasonable grounds, and not according to the color of the skin, and when the common proverb for distinction shall be, Mentem non frontem hominis spectato. In behalf of the oppressed portion of the citizens of Nantucket,WILLIAM SERRINGTON,WILLIAM MORRIS,WILLIAM HARRIS,Committee for Publication.

Editor’s note: Paragraphs were added to this document to make for easier reading.

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Document HS I-12 Appeal to the Legislature: Excerpts from Petition Sent by Black Nantucketers and from "An Act Concerning Public Schools"

Document HS I-12 Appeal to the Legislature: Excerpts from Petition Sent by Black Nantucketers and from "An Act Concerning Public Schools"

In 1845, 105 black Nantucketers signed and sent the following petition to the General Court in Boston: 

The undersigned inhabitants of Nantucket respectfully present that they have between thirty five and forty children who are deprived of their right to equal instruction with other children in our Common Schools; and that they can have no instruction from the town, unless they submit to insults, and outrages upon their rights, quite equal to being imprisoned in a South Carolina jail; and for no other reason but ... color.

They have applied to some of the first (best) lawyers in the Commonwealth, and are informed that they can get no redress, through the law as it is, they therefore pray that there may be some enactment, which will protect all children in their equal rights to the schools, against the majorities of School Committees, or of those who assemble in town meetings."

Quoted in African Americans on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket: A History of People, Places and Events, ed. by Karen and Robert Hayden (Select Publications, 1999).

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A few months later, the Massachusetts legislature passed House Bill 45, “An Act Concerning Public Schools, remedy for the unlawful exclusion of a child from a public school institution.”

Any child, unlawfully excluded from public school instruction, in this Commonwealth, shall recover damages therefore, in an action on the case, to be brought in the name of said child, by his guardian or next friend, in any court of competent jurisdiction to try the same, against the city or town by which public school instruction is supported.

From General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from 1836 to 1853.

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Document HS I-13: For the Good of All Children: Excerpts from Charles Sumner’s argument in Roberts v. The City of Boston, 1849

Document HS I-13: For the Good of All Children: Excerpts from Charles Sumner’s argument in Roberts v. The City of Boston, 1849

It is easy to see that the exclusion of colored children from the Public Schools is a constant inconvenience to them and their parents, which white children and white parents are not obliged to bear. Here the facts are plain and unanswerable, showing a palpable violation of Equality. That black and white are not equal before the law. I am at a loss to understand how anybody can assert that they are….

… this consideration cannot be neglected, the matters taught in the two schools may be precisely the same; but a school exclusively devoted to one class, must differ essentially in spirit and character from that common school known to the law, where all classes meet together in Equality. It is a mockery to call it an equivalent.

… [Black children] have an equal right with white children to the Common Schools. A separate school, though well endowed, would not secure to them that precise Equality which they would enjoy in the Common Schools…Thus much for the doctrine of equivalents as a substitute for equality….

… The whole system of Common Schools suffers also… The law contemplates not only that all shall be taught, but that all shall be taught together. They are not only to receive equal quantities of knowledge, but all are to receive it in the same way. All are to approach the same common fountain together; nor can there be any exclusive source for any individual or any class. The school is the little world where the child is trained for the larger world of life…And since, according to our institutions, all classes, without distinction of color, meet in the performance of civil duties, so should they all, without distinction of color, meet in the school — beginning there those relations of Equality which Constitution and Laws promise to all.

Equality before the law, unconstitutionality of separate colored schools in Massachusetts: argument of Charles Sumner, Esq., before the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, in the case of Sarah C. Roberts vs. the City of Boston, December 4, 1849, F. & J. Rives & Geo. A. Bailey, Reporters and Printers of the debates of Congress, 1870.

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Document HS I-14: The Legislature Takes Action: Massachusetts Chapter 256, Desegregating Public Schools, 1855

Document HS I-14: The Legislature Takes Action: Massachusetts Chapter 256, Desegregating Public Schools, 1855

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:

Section 1. In determining the qualifications of scholars to be admitted into any public school, or any district school in this Commonwealth, no distinction shall be made on account of the race, color, or religious opinions, of the applicant or scholar.

Section 2. Any child who, on account of his race, color, or religious opinions, shall be excluded from any public or district school in this Commonwealth, for admission to which he may be otherwise qualified, shall recover damages therefor, in an action of tort to be brought in the name of said child, by his guardian or next friend, in any court of competent jurisdiction to try the same, against the city or town by which such school is supported.

Section 3. In filing interrogatories for discovery in any such action, the plaintiff may examine any member of the school committee, or any other officer of the defendant city or town, in the same manner as if he were party to the suit.

Section 4. Every person belonging to the school committee, under whose rules or direction any child shall be excluded from such school, and every teacher of such school, shall on application by the parent or guardian of any such child, state in writing the grounds and reasons of such exclusion.

Section 5. This Act shall take effect from and after the first day of September next (1855).

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