FEBRUARY 15, 1848

Excluded from school, Anti-Slavery Almanac, 1839, p. 13 Credit: Public Domain

Sarah Roberts, a 5-year-old Black American, entered an all-white school in Boston — only to be turned away. She wound up entering four more white schools, and each time she was shown the door. And so she found herself walking from home, passing five all-white schools on the way to an all-black school the city of Boston was forcing her to attend. 

This angered her father, Benjamin, one of the nation’s first Black American printers, and he sued the city. Robert Morris, one of the nation’s first Black lawyers, took up the case. 

“Any child unlawfully excluded from public school shall recover damages therefore against the city or town by which such public instruction is supported,” Morris wrote. 

He and co-counsel Charles Sumner argued that the Constitution of Massachusetts held all are equal before the law, regardless of race, and that the laws creating public schools made no distinctions. 

Sumner wrote, “Prejudice is the child of ignorance … sure to prevail where people do not know each other.” 

In 1850, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the racial segregation of public schools. The attorneys brought the issue to state lawmakers. In 1855, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts banned segregated schools — the first law barring segregated schools in the U.S.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.