Education & the Massachusetts Courts

African Americans historically have struggled to gain equal educational opportunities. Initially denied any public education, blacks in Boston and a few other Massachusetts communities later attended racially segregated public schools. In the mid-1800s, racial segregation in Boston public schools was challenged, but the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the practice. Only after intense lobbying from the black community and their white abolitionist allies did the state legislature enact a law in 1855 finally prohibiting segregation in Boston public schools.

In 1972, African Americans sued in the Federal Court to reverse the racial segregation that had returned to the Boston public school system, and they succeeded. In the 1990s, lawsuits challenged the decision of the Federal Court, and the justice system remained under increasing pressure to dismantle the successes of the 1970s.

Sarah C. Roberts v.
The City of Boston

Five year old Sarah Roberts is blocked from attending a white school.

Morgan v. Hennigan
and Desegregation

This landmark 1972 case abolished public school segregation.

Desegregation reversed 20 years later

Challenging Judge Garrity’s court decision in 1996 and 1998, two complaints alleged that the students Julia McLaughlin and Sarah Wessman were denied admission to Boston Latin School because of a racially conscious admissions policy that violated the United States Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

In 1998, Chief Judge Joseph Tauro of the United States District Court of Massachusetts ruled that achieving a racially diverse student body did not violate the U.S. Constitution and that the admissions policy was justified because of the Boston School Committee’s remaining racially discriminatory practices. The United States Court of Appeals, however, reversed the ruling in the case of Wessman’s family, holding the policy unconstitutional.

In 2017, student enrollment at Boston Latin School, the city’s flagship public school, did not reflect the racial composition of the Boston public schools. At that time, 87% of the student population consisted of students of color.

An unintended consequence of the struggle to desegregate Boston schools was a significant decline in the white student population because of white flight and some whites sending their children to private schools.

“God helping me I [will] do my best to hasten the day when the color of the skin [will] be no barrier to equal school rights.” —William Cooper Nell
Boston Latin School
Boston Latin School, courtesy of The Boston Globe / Bob Backoff.

William Cooper Nell
William Cooper Nell (1816–1874), a 13-year-old student at the African Meeting House School, was denied the Franklin Medal for Scholarship in 1829 because of his race. Nell later led the struggle to desegregate Boston’s schools and became one of the city’s most important black leaders. Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society.