Sarahs Long Walk chronicles the first fight for school integration in Boston more than 150 years ago

Sarah’s Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America
By Stephen Kendrick & Paul Kendrick
Boston, Beacon Press, 291 pages.

In 1850, 46 years before the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that separate but equal facilities did not violate the United States Constitution, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld segregation in its schools on grounds that it did not violate the Massachusetts Constitution. In fact, the majority opinion in Plessy relied upon the SJC’s decision in Roberts v. City of Boston that segregated schools did not violate the rights of African-American children even though African-Americans had been afforded some political rights in the Commonwealth.

While many legal scholars have looked upon the Roberts case as an anomaly that helped crystallize the national law on segregation, others have viewed it as a valiant, if unsuccessful, attempt to advance social and political equality in one state that had an unfortunate impact on the entire country. But until this new book by Stephen and Paul Kendrick, novelist and NAACP chapter president, respectively, the human actors behind the Roberts case and its movement to change the racial fabric in 19th-century Boston have been ignored. Sarah’s Long Walk gives the general public an in-depth look at the human dynamics that gripped Boston in the first half of the 1800s and of the individuals (both African- and European-American) who dared to dream of an egalitarian society mandated by law.

In telling the legal story, the authors also reveal the complex social relationships between the majority population of Boston and people of color who were freed from slavery and those who had run away from it in the South. Much of this is presented in Part I, where we are introduced to Robert Morris, the first African-American lawyer in the United States to argue a jury case, who was also co-counsel to Charles Sumner in Roberts. Morris was just the second African-American to be admitted to practice law in the United States. Macon Allen was the first to hold this honor, having passed the bar in Maine and later in Massachusetts. Morris was trained under Ellis Gray Loring, an incorporator of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, which demonstrates that despite segregation in housing, transportation, and education, several prominent members of the Boston community were willing to cross the color line and lend assistance to Boston’s “coloured” population on “Nigger Hill,” on the west side of Beacon Hill.

Morris, the lawyer who represented Sarah Roberts and her father, Benjamin, in their efforts to obtain integrated education in Boston, is the focus of the book, but the reader gets introduced to other influential African-Americans in Boston and surrounding areas as well. These include Tituba of Salem, Charles Lenox Remond (abolitionist), Prince Hall (founder of the Masonic lodge), Crispus Attucks (first person to die in the American Revolution), Rev. Thomas Paul (organizer of the first African church in America), David Walker (writer and abolitionist), John Brown Russwurm (graduate of Bowdoin College and publisher of the first African-American newspaper in America), Maria Stewart (abolitionist), William Cooper Nell (activist and associate of William Lloyd Garrison) and Frederick Douglass (premier abolitionist of the period). Though these individuals appear essentially in sketches, the reader gains an important glimpse into the pre-Civil War African-American community here and the critical role it played in agitating for social equality in Massachusetts.

Integrated education was not always the goal of these community leaders. In 1798, Primus Hall established the first African school in his home because of the abuse that African students received in the public schools. In 1815, Abiel Smith, a wealthy businessman of European background, left a bequest to the Primus Hall School, which prompted the city of Boston to exercise more control over the academy and to provide limited financial support. By 1840, members of the African community, under the leadership of William Nell, petitioned for an end to the school, which was renamed after Smith, and which was the only school African-American children were allowed to attend. For the next 15 years Nell, Roberts, and Morris and others fought to integrate Boston’s schools. The book ably chronicles their noble, if failed, efforts.

n Part II of Sarah’s Long Walk, the Kendricks explain the legal challenge that resulted in the court decision in 1850. In 1847, Benjamin Roberts took his 4-year-old daughter, Sarah, to schools close to her home; she was refused admission to one and ejected by Boston police from another. Roberts, through attorney Morris, brought suit against the city in 1848, citing a state law that allowed students unlawfully excluded from public schools to collect damages. Despite demonstrating that the Smith School was inferior to other schools, Roberts lost the case on the grounds that Sarah had a school available to her, albeit one far from her home and reserved exclusively for African-Americans.

Following this loss in court, there was a movement in the African community to petition city authorities to integrate Boston’s schools. But the community was not exactly united behind this goal. Some, such as Thomas Paul, fought to maintain the segregated Smith School, arguing that the school was a place where African-American students would be “…defended and protected from outrage or indecency.” Those who supported segregation believed that the white schools would not treat the African students with respect. At the heart of their opposition was a desire to maintain an important institution in their community.

Nell and Morris refused to accept defeat, however, seeking out Charles Sumner to assist in an appeal before the Supreme Judicial Court. The choice of Sumner was a wise one. Sumner, a Harvard-educated lawyer and descendent of Boston’s first mayor, grew up in modest financial conditions on the periphery of the African community and devoted himself entirely to the abolitionist cause. Morris, though an able trial attorney, had no experience arguing before the Supreme Judicial Court.

Not that it mattered, in the end. Sumner argued eloquently on the question: “Can any discrimination of color or race be made, under the Constitution and laws of Massachusetts, among the children entitled to the benefit of our common schools?” But the high court ruled that the Boston School Committee possessed the authority to establish separate schools. Therefore, excluding Sarah Roberts from the schools she sought to enter violated no laws nor the Massachusetts Constitution.

In Part III, the authors present Robert Morris as disappointed by the SJC decision but by no means defeated in his determination to secure justice for African people in Massachusetts. In 1851, he and a group of armed Africans from Boston’s West End raided the federal courthouse and freed Shadrach Minkin, a fugitive who had been captured in Boston and threatened with return to Virginia. Morris was arrested for aiding Minkin’s escape but found not guilty. In 1854, another runaway from Virginia, Anthony Burns, faced a similar deportation hearing under the new Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. A crowd attempted to free him but failed.

Meanwhile, Boston’s African-Americans continued their struggle against deportation of escaped slaves and for integrated schools. As a result of their petitions and agitation, on April 28, 1855, a state law was signed making segregated schools in Massachusetts unlawful. Nonetheless, the Roberts case remained on the books, providing legal precedent for segregated institutions across the nation, and ultimately for Plessy v. Ferguson.

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Today, we have gotten used to courts establishing rights that elected lawmakers refuse, or are too scared, to vote for. The Supreme Judicial Court decision on gay marriage is an example. But in 1855, as a result of political pressure from a united abolitionist/integrationist coalition, the Massachusetts Legislature mandated integrated public schools. This seems extraordinary given that it occurred well before the Civil War and remained in place throughout the backlash against Radical Reconstruction, which plunged America into a period of racial terror (Ku Klux Klan) and even more entrenched segregation.

When it comes to Boston, however, segregated schools would not be the subject of decisive court action again for nearly another century. But this act of the Massachusetts Legislature brought to a triumphant close the long walk Sarah Roberts and her father began a decade earlier. Thanks to Sarah’s Long Walk, the leadership provided to this struggle by the African-American community can now be given the recognition it deserves in Massachusetts political and social history.

Robert Johnson Jr., Esq., is professor and chairman of the Africana Studies Department at University of Massachusetts­ Boston