A Woman to Know: Sarah C. Roberts

Prejudice is the child of ignorance, sure to prevail where people do not know each other. — Charles Sumner

Prejudice is the child of ignorance, sure to prevail where people do not know each other. — Charles Sumner

(image via Smithsonian Museum of American History)

In 1848, Sarah C. Roberts’s father tried to enroll her in the neighborhood elementary school.

But the Boston school administration barred five-year-old Sarah from entering the classroom. He tried another school; again, denied. He tried another, even getting Sarah inside the door before the principal forcibly removed both from the building. Ultimately, Sarah and her father had to walk past five different schools on their way to a “colored institution,” the only school that would accept her as a student.

The Roberts family took their case to court, with Sarah’s father listing his daughter as the plaintiff. He sought help from Robert Morris, one of the country’s first Black attorneys, and Charles Sumner, the abolitionist lawyer who would later become a prominent senator. As Sumner wrote at the time:

The separation of the schools, so far from being for the benefit of both races, is an injury to both. It tends to create a feeling of degradation in the blacks, and of prejudice and uncharitableness in the whites.

Ultimately, the judge was unswayed by Sumner’s arguments, writing that racism is “"is not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law.” But Sumner later took the issue to the Massachusetts legislature, which banned all segregation in the school system, the first-ever state to do so.

But the judge’s careful wording in the original court’s decision was recognized as “precedent” for Plessy v. Ferguson. This landmark Supreme Court case established the “separate but equal” doctrine, one that upheld nationwide segregation until Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools in 1954 — more than 100 years after Sarah C. Roberts first tried to enter the classroom.

Add to your library list: 

Read more:

Hear more:

Send your own recommendations for women to know! Reply to this newsletter with your lady and she could be featured in an upcoming edition.