The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled on Roberts v Boston 170 years ago this month. When five year old Sarah Roberts was turned away from the schoolhouse door in Boston simply because of the color of her skin, her father sued the city in an attempt to force the public schools to desegregate, in compliance with a state law that had been intended to do just that years before. Unfortunately, the suit was unsuccessful. Not only did the Boston schools remain segregated, but the court’s decision provided the legal framework of “separate but equal,” which would be used to justify segregated schools across the country for a century to come.
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Separate but Equal in Boston
Boston Book Club
- Text of the Roberts v Boston decision, including written arguments by Robert Morris, the agreed statement of facts, and Lemuel Shaw’s decision.
- Charles Sumner’s oral arguments before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
- Levy, Leonard W., and Harlan B. Philips. “The Roberts Case: Source of the ‘Separate but Equal’ Doctrine.” The American Historical Review.
- The Acts Concerning Public Schools of 1845 and 1855.
- Our header image of a girl being turned away from the schoolhouse door is taken from the 1839 American Anti-Slavery Almanac.
Published in 1827, the House Servant’s Directory, by Robert Roberts, is a detailed, indispensable guide for domestic servants, or as the author would have put it, “those entering into gentlemen’s service.” Written over a two year period while he was the head butler at Governor Christopher Gore’s Waltham estate, Roberts’ guide is considered one of the first books written by an African American author for a broad commercial audience. And the audience was truly broad, with three editions of the book selling out. Demand was high, not only among those in gentlemen’s service, but also with the ambitious and newly wealthy families who would employ domestic servants. Here’s how a review from the New England Historical Society describes it:
The job Robert Roberts described amounted to managing an entire household as head butler or steward. He advised the servant to display deference to the employer but to conduct himself with dignity and skill. He advised employers to only hire servants over 30 years old.
Throughout the day, the servant had to help his employer get dressed and keep his clothes in order, make and present drinks, supervise contractors, serve meals, supervise servants, light the fire, maintain the wine cellar and shop for food.
One of the servant’s most important duties was serving meals in a style befitting an aristocratic Bostonian. Historian Graham Russell Hodges notes the House Servant’s Directory served as ‘a precise manual of proper dining room conduct for an aspiring American elite.’
The book gives detailed instructions on serving dinner. Don’t bring the cheese out too early, because it might smell. Make as little noise as possible when changing plates. Make sure the side dishes line up straight on the table. Take a station a yard behind the person at the foot of the table and a little to the left. Never let your thumb be farther than the rim of the plate. Take off dish covers with your left hand. Have half as many candles as guests, with a flame should be 18 inches above the table.
Heating the house occupied a great deal of time in winter, and Roberts devotes 14 pages to making a fire of Lehigh coal, also known as anthracite or Rhode Island coal.
The House Servant’s Directory also includes many recipes, for polishes, cleaners, spot removers, jams, sauces, drinks and adhesives.
After Governor Gore died in 1827, Robert Roberts retired from service and bought a house on Beacon Hill. For the next 30 years, he worked tirelessly for the abolitionist cause and to advance civil rights for black citizens. The cause of integrating Boston’s public schools would be taken up by his granddaughter, Sarah, who was the plaintiff in the case at the heart of this week’s episode.
A few weeks ago, our Boston Book Club selection was Jared Ross Hardesty’s Unfreedom, looking at slavery in early Boston in the context of other forms of limited bondage. On December 18, Dr. Hardesty will be presenting about his follow up to that work, Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England. Where Unfreedom offered a macro view of slavery in our city, Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds zooms out for a broader view of that peculiar institution across the region.
Here’s how the Royall House describes the event:
Shortly after the first Europeans arrived in 17th century New England, they began to enslave the area’s indigenous peoples and import kidnapped Africans. By the eve of the American Revolution, enslaved people comprised only about 4% of the population, but slavery had become instrumental to the region’s economy and had shaped its cultural traditions.
In this concise yet comprehensive history, Jared Ross Hardesty focuses on the individual stories of enslaved people in New England, bringing their experiences to life. He also explores the importance of slavery to the colonization of the region and to agriculture and industry, New England’s deep connections to Caribbean plantation societies, and the significance of emancipation movements in the era of the American Revolution.
While the talk is being put on by the Royall House, it’s actually being held at the Cabot Center at Tufts University, not far from Davis Square. There’s no charge for admission, but space is limited, so advanced registration is encouraged.