Sarah C. Roberts is a little known Freedom Fighter in American history. Roberts was only five years old when she and her father challenged the Boston Board of Education in 1849. The final decision in Roberts’ case, given by the Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw set up the ultimate precedence for the Plessy vs. Ferguson “separate but equal” ruling of 1896.
Roberts, with her lawyers Charles Sumner and Robert Morris, sued the city of Boston for the right to attend public school with white children. They intended to prove that "separate" schools did not meet the statutory requirement for "common" schools for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The school Roberts was supposed to attend; the Smith school did not have the same funding, faculty, or other materials that were available in the white schools in Boston. In order to be fair, Sumner and Morris maintained, the Boston school board needed to intervene and provide identical, integrated facilities.
The City defense argued that the law was that that each child would receive adequate education at a school which was geographically closest to them, and that it did not make sense for Roberts to travel across town to attend the Sun Court school for which she had been kicked out of one day previously for attempting to go to class.
In their final arguments, Sumner declared that before the law all men must be equal, and that it was necessary for "distinctions [to] disappear. He is not poor, weak, humble, or black; nor is he Caucasian, Jew, Indian, or Ethiopian... He is a man, the equal of all his fellow-men." Chief Justice Shaw retorted that in order to ascertain the best meaning of "equality," one had to look beyond the "great principle" to the law and its continuous adaptation to "respective relations and conditions" (Roberts v. The City of Boston, 1849, p. 206).10 Such a view treated societal norms as the key phenomena in need of investigation, while the law worked best when it mirrored these relations. At one point in his opinion, Shaw claimed that if there was an "odious distinction of caste," as the petitioners maintained, then it was the sole result of "a deep-rooted prejudice of public opinion" which "is not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law" (p. 209). Essentially, that laws must be influenced by public opinion, and that it was not the job of the judiciary to go against general public attitudes.
As Marfouf Hasian Jr. and Geoffrey Klinger conclude in their paper on Sarah C. Roberts and Lemuel Shaw, “the belief that prejudices were not created or changed by the law provided the theoretical ground to justify political positions maintaining "separate but equal" education. When the law is treated as simply a reflection of some temporary majority, it became an impediment to meaningful social change both for that time and for subsequent generations.”
Posted by Mia Ragent