Racial school segregation has been an ongoing national issue, and it dates back to the early nineteenth century. This program narrates the half-century struggle to desegregate Boston’s public schools. In the 1840s, the school desegregation campaign hit its stride, as African American activists deployed numerous strategies, from petitions to boycotts to lawsuits like Sarah C. Roberts v. City of Boston. The decision among activists to pursue a case on behalf of Sarah, a five year old black girl, was a conscious one meant to garner public sympathy and legal victory by casting Sarah as an innocent and respectable child in need of protection. Though the Massachusetts Judicial Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Boston school committee in 1850, African American activists soon declared victory after the passage of the 1855 state law prohibiting racial discrimination in Massachusetts public schools. Sarah C. Roberts v. City of Boston was a significant case for a host of reasons, not least of which was the transformation of a black girl into an icon for educational justice.

Kabria Baumgartner is an assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Hampshire at Durham where she teaches nineteenth century African American culture, history, and literature. Her book, In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America (New York University Press, 2019), explores the history of school desegregation in the nineteenth century Northeast by focusing on the educational experiences of African American girls and women. Her next book uncovers the lives of indentured African American girls in the antebellum Northeast.