One of the rights of passage for our eighth graders is their study of the United States Constitution and Supreme Court cases. Every year, one of the popular choices to study is the 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education. In this decision, the US Supreme Court made school segregation unconstitutional, saying separate is never equal. While this case is well known, there was an important trial over a hundred years previous to Brown. The Massachusetts case, Roberts v. City of Boston, began the fight for an equal education for all children.
The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan E. Goodman, illustrated by E. B. Lewis (Bloomsbury) introduces Sarah Roberts, a young African-American girl who was evicted from the Otis School because it was only for white children. The Otis School was close to Sarah’s home, but Boston had a rule that children who weren’t white had to go to a separate school that was just for them. The school that Sarah was told to go to was the Smith School, which was far away from her home. The Smith School only owned one book, subjects like history and drawing weren’t taught, and there was no area to play outside.
Adeline and Benjamin Roberts decided to fight for their daughter’s education, and they hired a young African-American attorney, Robert Morris. The case was filed in 1848, yet it wasn’t until late in 1849 that it was heard in court. By then, Morris had asked Charles Sumner, a lawyer and staunch abolitionist, to help him. The two attorneys, one black and one white, argued that Boston children should attend schools that were closest to their homes. Sumner spoke eloquently and said that all children deserved an equal education. The Massachusetts Supreme Court announced the decision in 1850 that segregated schools were legal.
Sarah’s father went on to fight for equal education outside of the legal system. He traveled around Massachusetts to speak on the subject. Wherever he went, he passed out copies of Charles Sumner’s speech from court and carried petitions to be signed. In 1855, Boston became the first major city to officially integrate the public schools.
Fast forward to the 1950s…Linda Brown had a long and arduous journey to school in Topeka, Kansas. Her parents joined with other families and called the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to file a suit. The better school that was closest to her home was only for white children. It was the Charles Sumner School. Serendipitous?
In this informative and intriguing account about the fight for educational equality for all children, Susan Goodman writes about taking steps forward and then steps back throughout history. As a Boston resident, the author includes a timeline with information about the busing crisis during the 1970s. There are other valuable sections at the back of the book when Goodman writes about what happened to those involved in the Roberts’ case. She also describes her research and sources. The illustrator, E. B. Lewis has won much recognition for his artwork.