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Abolitionist William Cooper Nell fought for integrated schools

Anthony W. Neal | 5/23/2012, 8:21 a.m.
“No man in New England has performed more uncompensated labor for...

As did school committee members, some in the city’s African American community found good in racially segregated schools and resisted Nell’s effort to integrate them. Separatist Thomas Paul Smith, for instance, penned a letter which was published in “The Liberator” on February 15, 1850. He defended black parents in Boston who had opposed the abolition of separate schools. Apparently alluding to an article written by Nell that had called for integration, he wrote, “Many of us having children ourselves, for their sakes we are opposed to any measure which would interrupt or retard their elevation.”

Among other respected members of that community, he believed all-black schools to be institutions “of great advantage to colored people”  when properly conducted. From “no other source can we obtain so much practical good,” Smith added.

On the second battlefront, black parents of grammar school-aged children boycotted the Smith School, claiming that the teachers at the school often lacked confidence in the abilities of black schoolchildren, neglected them, and consequently, those children performed poorly. Other parents removed their children from the Smith School solely to shield them from the degradation of forced segregation.

African American parents favored integrated schools because they permitted their children to successfully compete against white children intellectually. By 1844, for instance, John T. Hilton, a barber, had already withdrawn his daughter from the Smith School, where she was performing poorly. He enrolled her in an integrated school in Cambridge, where she soon became an honors student. The boycott of the Smith School was effective. Average attendance dropped from more than 100, before the boycott began in 1844, to 25 by the spring of 1850.

On the third front, by 1849 a constitutional challenge to the legitimacy of segregated schools had reached the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (SJC). In “Sarah C. Roberts v. City of Boston,” Benjamin F. Roberts, one of the foremost in advocating the rights of his race, asked the city for damages because his daughter had been excluded from the public school closest to her home solely because of her color. Like other black parents, Roberts refused to enroll his daughter in a segregated school.   

Charles Sumner and Nell’s friend, Robert Morris Jr., the second African American to be admitted to the practice of law in the United States, represented Roberts in the lawsuit. They claimed that Sarah’s exclusion from the school closest to her residence violated Massachusetts law, which provided that any child unlawfully excluded from public school instruction shall recover damages from the city. They also argued that her exclusion was an infringement upon her equal rights, found in Part One, Article I and VI of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

Writing for the SJC, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw conceded that black people were entitled by law “to equal rights, constitutional and political, civil and social,” but he found the regulation in question, which provided separate schools for black children, not a violation of any of these rights.

In short, Sarah had been lawfully excluded from the school nearest to her home. The “good” promoted in maintaining racially segregated schools outweighed the potential risk involved in requiring a five-year-old girl to walk an extra fifth of a mile to attend school. More than 45 years later on May 18, 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court would adopt the SJC’s “separate but equal” doctrine in the case of “Plessy v. Ferguson.”