A separate but unequal school in the capital of abolition fervor

Why should little Sarah have to walk past good schools for whites?

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Sarah Roberts, who entered history in 1848 at the age of 5, would have had to walk nearly half a mile to get to her designated school on Boston's Beacon Hill. That distance was but a fourth as long as the two miles that 6-year-old Abe Lincoln had walked to his school in Kentucky just a few decades before. But young Abe didn't have to pass by several superior schools because of the color of his skin.

The lesser status of the Smith School, the public school for "colored" children, outraged her father, Benjamin Roberts, a free black American, a printer, and the grandson of a Revolutionary War veteran. In 1847, when Sarah was 4, her father embarked on what he called a "practical experiment," and what his friends, fearful of what black children at white schools might have to endure, called folly.

After failing to get the School Committee's permission to enroll Sarah at the school nearest to her home (as the committee's own general rule required, at least for white children), Roberts defiantly took her to that nearby school, and was turned away. Next, he tried another of the nearer schools - and, surprisingly, Sarah was accepted. She studied with the white children there for several months, until the School Committee had a policeman remove her.

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In 1848, Benjamin Roberts took the next step in his experiment: a lawsuit against the city. Though praising the eloquent moral plea for "equality before the law," a unanimous Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that having separate schools for "colored" and white children was not incompatible with equality.

Even after the adoption of the 14th Amendment guaranteeing "the equal protection of the laws," that verdict would be cited as precedent by a dozen state courts, and then by the US Supreme Court in the notorious 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision upholding segregation and the "separate but equal" doctrine. More than a half-century later, when NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall sought in Brown v. Board of Education to overturn Plessy, standing in the way of any argument that it had been wrongly decided, was the old Massachusetts verdict.

Though the Roberts case thus proved an impediment to black progress in the nation, it was part of a successful struggle by free blacks for integrated schools in Boston, as Stephen Kendrick, a Unitarian minister, and his son, Paul, a college student, show in absorbing detail with "Sarah's Long Walk."

The Smith School, located on the northern side of Beacon Hill, where Boston's few thousand black inhabitants were concentrated, had opened in 1835. Nearly a half-century earlier, black leaders had called for just such a segregated school, where black children would not be subjected to racial insults and harassment. But there was no denying that conditions at the new school were inferior. Agitation for abolition of the Smith School began in 1840, and a boycott commenced four years later, swiftly cutting attendance by 40 percent.

The verdict in the Roberts case was a setback to the integrationist cause, but in 1855 the Massachusetts legislature made integrated schooling the law of the commonwealth. Meanwhile, the free blacks and their abolitionist allies achieved other victories, including an end to segregated seating on the state's railroad cars, and the repeal of a ban on interracial marriage.

The Kendricks provide engaging sketches of key figures in the struggle, and a fascinating glimpse of the black community in Boston at the time. They deserve praise for unearthing these buried lives, but at times they let their ideological preconceptions rule. While admitting that information about Sarah is "excruciatingly hard to come by," they have no difficulty deciding that she probably suffered grave "emotional damage" when she was taken out of the white school. Supposing that she did, they fail to ask if that damage cast any doubt on the wisdom of her father's decision to defy the School Committee and put her there. Did he place the cause ahead of her welfare?

The Kendricks also put great stress on Sarah's "long walk" (which apparently she never actually took). They write at times as if the distance was Benjamin Roberts's main grievance, not just his strongest legal point. But was it? If the all-black school had been the one nearest his home, surely he would have been just as outraged. It seems a little strange, then - and rather ironic, in light of Boston's busing ordeal of the 1970s - to present him as, in effect, an early defender of "the neighborhood school" tradition. But, of course, he was that, too.

Robert K. Landers is the author of 'An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell.'

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