Several years ago, I published an article in a scholarly journal entitled “Strange Bedfellows: Nativism, Know-Nothings, African-Americans & School Desegregation in Antebellum Massachusetts,” that spotlighted the odd confluence of anti-Irish nativism and the struggle to desegregate Boston schools. The Know-Nothings—a populist, nativist coalition that contained elements that would later be folded into the emerging Republican Party—made a surprising sweep in the Massachusetts 1854 elections, fueled primarily by anti-Irish sentiment, as well as a pent-up popular rage against the elite status quo that had long dominated state politics. Suddenly, the governor, all forty senators, and all but three house representatives were Know-Nothings!
Perhaps more startling was that during their brief tenure, the Know-Nothing legislature enacted a host of progressive reforms, creating laws to protect workingmen, ending imprisonment for debt, strengthening women’s rights in property and marriage, and—most significantly—passing landmark legislation in 1855 that “prohibited the exclusion [from public schools] of children for either racial or religious reasons,” which effectively made Massachusetts the first state in the country to ban segregation in schools! Featured in the debate prior to passage of the desegregation bill is a quote from the record that is to today’s ears perhaps at once comic and cringeworthy, as one proponent of the new law sincerely voiced his regret “that Negroes living on the outskirts . . . were forced to go a long distance to [the segregated] Smith School. . . while . . . the ‘dirtiest Irish,’ were allowed to step from their houses into the nearest school.”
My article focused on Massachusetts politics and the bizarre incongruity of nativists unexpectedly delivering the long sought-after prize of desegregated schools to the African American community. It is also the story of the nearly forgotten black abolitionist and integrationist William Cooper Nell, a mild if charismatic figure who united disparate forces of blacks and whites in a long, stubborn, determined campaign to end Boston school segregation. But there are lots of other important stories of people and events that led to that moment which due to space constraints could not receive adequate treatment in my effort.
Arguably the most significant one, which my article references but does not dwell upon, centers upon a little black girl named Sarah Roberts. Her father, Benjamin R. Roberts, sued for equal protection rights under the state constitution because his daughter was barred from attending a school near her residence and was compelled to a long walk to the rundown and crowded Smith School instead. He was represented by Robert Morris, one of the first African American attorneys in the United States, and Charles Sumner, who would later serve as United States Senator. In April 1850, in Roberts v. The City of Boston, the state Supreme Court ruled against him, declaring that each locality could decide for itself whether to have or end segregation. This ruling was to serve as an unfortunate precedent for the ignominious separate but equal ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson some decades hence and was also an obstacle Thurgood Marshall had to surmount when he successfully argued to have the Supreme Court strike down school segregation across the nation in 1954’s breakthrough Brown v. Board of Education case—just a little more than a century after the disappointing ruling in the Roberts case.
Father and son Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick teamed up to tell the Roberts story and a good deal more in Sarah’s Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America, an extremely well-written, comprehensive, if occasionally slow-moving chronicle that recovers for the reader the vibrant, long overlooked black community that once peopled Boston in the years before the Civil War. In the process, the authors reveal how it was that while the state of Massachusetts offered the best overall quality of life in the nation for free blacks, it was also the home to the same stark, virulent racism characteristic of much of the north in the antebellum era, a deep-seated prejudice that manifested itself not only in segregated schools but also in a strict separation in other arenas such as transportation and theaters.
Doctrines of abolition were widely despised, north and south, and while abolitionists remained a minority in Massachusetts, as well, it was perhaps the only state in the country where antislavery ideology achieved widespread legitimacy. But true history is all nuance, and those who might rail passionately against the inherent evil in holding humans as chattel property did not necessarily also advance notions of racial equality. That was indeed far less common. Moreover, it is too rarely underscored that the majority of northern “Freesoilers” who were later to become the most critical component of the Republican Party vehemently opposed the spread of slavery to the new territories acquired in the Mexican War while concomitantly despising blacks, free or enslaved.
At the same time, there was hardly unanimity in the free black community when it came to integration; some blacks welcomed separation. Still, as Sarah’s Long Walk relates, there were a number of significant African American leaders like Robert Morris and William Cooper Nell whom, with their white abolitionist allies, played the long game and pursued compelling, nonviolent mechanisms to achieve both integration and equality, many of which presaged the tactics of Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights figures a full century later. For instance, rather than lose hope after the Roberts court decision, Nell doubled down his efforts, this time with a new strategy—a taxpayer’s boycott of Boston which saw prominent blacks move out of the city to suburbs that featured integrated schools, depriving Boston of tax revenue.
The Kendrick’s open the narrative with a discussion of Thurgood Marshall’s efforts to overturn the Roberts precedent in Brown v. Board of Education, and then trace that back to the flesh and blood Boston inhabitants who made Roberts v. The City of Boston possible, revealing the free blacks who have too long been lost to history. Readers not familiar with this material will come across much that will surprise them between the covers of this fine book. The most glaring might be how thoroughly in the decades after Reconstruction blacks have been erased from our history, north and south. Until recently, how many growing up in Massachusetts knew anything at all about the thriving free black community in Boston, or similar ones elsewhere above the Mason-Dixon?
But most astonishing for many will be the fact that the separation of races that that would become the new normal in the post-Civil War “Jim Crow” south had its roots fully nurtured in the north decades before Appomattox. Whites and their enslaved chattels shared lives intertwined in the antebellum south, while separation between whites and blacks was fiercely enforced in the north. Many African Americans in Massachusetts had fled bondage, or had family members that were runaways, and knew full well that southern slaveowners commonly traveled by rail accompanied by their enslaved servants, while free blacks in Boston were relegated to a separate car until the state prohibited racial segregation in mass transportation in 1842.
Sarah may not have been spared her long walk to school, but the efforts of integrationists eventually paid off when school segregation was prohibited by Massachusetts law just five years after Sarah’s father lost his case in court. Unfortunately, this battle had to be waged all over again in the 1970s, this time accompanied by episodes of violence, as Boston struggled to achieve educational equality through controversial busing mandates that in the long term generated far more ill will than sustainable results. Despite the elevation of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court bench, and the election of the first African American president, more than one hundred fifty years after the Fourteenth Amendment became the law of the land, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement reminds us that there is still much work to be done to achieve anything like real equality in the United States.
For historians and educators, an even greater concern these days lies in the concerted efforts by some on the political right to erase the true story of African American history from public schools. As this review goes to press in Black History Month, February 2022, shameful acts are becoming law across a number of states that by means of gaslighting legislation ostensibly designed to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) effectively prohibit educators from teaching their students the true history of slavery, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights. As of this morning, there are some one hundred thirteen other bills being advanced across the nation that could serve as potential gag orders in schools. How can we best combat that? One way is to loudly protest to state and federal officials, to insist that black history is also American history and should not be erased. The other is to freely share black history in your own networks. The best weapons for that in our collective arsenal are quality books like Sarah’s Long Walk.
My journal article, “Strange Bedfellows: Nativism, Know-Nothings, African-Americans & School Desegregation in Antebellum Massachusetts,” and related materials can be accessed by clicking here: Know-Nothings
For more about the Know-Nothings, I recommend this book which I reviewed here: Review of: The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of a People’s Movement, by John R. Mulkern