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The failed legacy of Boston school desegregation

50 years after Brown v. Board of Education

THERE IS GOOD reason to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, but school desegregation is not one of them. Surely, the process has been beneficial to many students; but the grim statistics of continuing racial segregation in the public schools, the inferior resources available in the mostly black and Spanish-background schools, even the tracking and other devices that isolate students by race in nominally desegregated schools tell the real story. Simply acknowledging the still segregated schools with the comment that "much remains to be done" is inadequate as reassurance and insufficient as analysis of what went wrong. Based on past experience, we should have known better. We who worked to desegregate schools under the vague directive of the Brown decision's "all deliberate speed" mandate, ignored warnings dating back more than 100 years. Some of the earliest came out of the 19th-century school desegregation experiences here in Boston.

When public schools opened in Boston in the late 18th century, black children were admitted to them. But by 1790, racial insults and mistreatment had driven out all but three or four black children. In this regard, the Boston children's experience was no different from those of other "free" black children in Northern schools. Racial hostility rendered educational equality for black children impossible even though they were attending the same schools as whites.

In 1787, Prince Hall, the black Revolutionary War veteran and community leader, unable to obtain funds for an " African" school from the state Legislature, raised money from blacks and friendly whites, and in 1806 opened a black school in his son Primus Hall's home. Later, the school received support from the Boston School Committee. The committee began exercising ever greater control over the school as its contributions increased. By 1835, complaints about the poor quality of instruction and poor conditions in the black schools led to the construction of a new school, but the heavy-handed policymaking remained.

Many black parents, unaware of or forgetting the mistreatment of black children in white schools 50 years earlier, became convinced that they had a new and better idea -- integrated schools. Thus motivated, a suit to desegregate Boston's public schools was filed in state court. Using arguments in 1850 remarkably similar to those that the Supreme Court would hear and accept a century later, Charles Sumner, abolitionist lawyer and later US senator, aided by Robert Morris, one of the nation's first black lawyers, maintained that the black schools were inferior in equipment and staffing, that they were inconvenient for those black children living closer to white schools, that neither state nor federal law supported segregated schools.

The Massachusetts court rejected all these arguments in Roberts v. City of Boston. The court found that the School Committee's segregation policy was reasonable. One black leader, Thomas P. Smith, was not surprised at the result and had argued against bringing the suit. In a speech delivered before "the colored citizens of Boston" in December 1849, he noted that the black school was in good physical shape, and that "the management and systems of instruction, the order and discipline of the scholars, their cheerfulness and spirit, are unsurpassed by any school in the city." He predicted that desegregation would fail because whites would not enroll their children with blacks.   Continued...

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