Sarah Roberts was born free to Benjamin and Adeline Roberts in Boston, Massachusetts in 1843.1 Her father, Benjamin Roberts, was a prominent African American printer in Boston during the mid-nineteenth century. Benjamin Roberts’ publishing work indicates the Roberts family’s participation2 in the larger African American community of Boston,3 suggesting Sarah probably had an interest and background in the Boston African-American community’s debates, discussions, and conversations.

Black and white engraving of Black students being turned away from school by a white man.

“Turned Away from School,” American Anti-Slavery Almanac, for 1839, Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection.

Very few records about the life of Sarah Roberts survive. A marriage certificate from 1867 shows that she married John Casneau, a ship’s steward.4 Unfortunately, she disappears from the records after 1867, except for the landmark court case bearing her name.

Sarah Roberts is best remembered in connection with the debates about education during the 1855 National Colored Convention because of her position as the central figure in Robert Morris’ landmark court case, Sarah Roberts v. The City of Boston. The details of this case are as such: despite living just blocks away from her nearest elementary school, Sarah was forced to walk past five of these schools because they were designated for white children.5 After facing such discrimination, Sarah’s father, Benjamin F. Roberts, sued6 the city with the hope of gaining Sarah entry into one of these local establishments. The family and their legal team lost this case, emblematic of the institutionalized nature of racism during this period.7 The details of the Sarah Roberts v. The City of Boston court case are intertwined with many of the educational discussions that took place at the 1855 Colored Convention. Because Sarah Roberts v. The City of Boston evolved out of the Roberts family’s struggles to enroll Sarah in a local elementary school, it relates closely with convention speeches surrounding segregated education and educational opportunities for African Americans, such as, the speech by James McCune Smith. Many critics have noted, however, that despite archival silences surrounding Sarah Roberts and her family, the legacy of her case lives on. Douglas Ficker, among other historians, describes Sarah Roberts v. The City of Boston as influencing proceedings in cases like Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education, which at the very least alleviated some traces of institutionalized racism in the United States’ education system.

Sarah and her family (and one of their lawyers, Robert Morris) are often overlooked in critical work surrounding this event. While generally speaking, nineteenth-century records tend to erase African American women’s presence from the archive, Sarah Roberts’ erasure from public documents is particularly notable given the importance and popularity of the court case bearing her same name. That being said, the majority of critical attention has been placed on white abolitionist players like Charles Sumner or Judge Lemuel Shaw, who ruled against the Roberts family.


Elizabeth A. Boyle, English 634, Spring 2013, Taught by Professor P. Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware.


  1., Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988, accessed 16 Mar 2013.
  2. “Roberts vs. City of Boston Begins” African American Registry, Education Minnesota Foundation, accessed 18 Mar 2013.

    According to the African American Registry, “The lawsuit was part of an organized effort by the African American community to end racially segregated schools.” The AAR’s argument is not surprising, however, given Benjamin F. Roberts’ work as a primary printer Light and Truth, a text written in the early 1840s by an African American writer. While the validity of this argument is unclear, it provides and interesting perspective on the motivations guiding Roberts’ legal actions, transforming them from a father’s mission to improve his daughter’s education to a strategic political maneuver.

  3. “From the Liberator Meeting of Colored Citizens,” The North Star, 24 Aug 1849, pg 3.

     At least one news document evidences Benjamin Roberts’ participation in a “Meeting of Colored Citizens” during 1849 that resulted in a compiled set of desired goals to be sent to Boston’s mayor.

  4., Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988, accessed 16 Mar 2013.
  5. “Roberts vs. City of Boston Begins” African American Registry, Education Minnesota Foundation, accessed 18 Mar 2013.
  6. “Light and Truth,” The Liberator, 17 Nov 1843, n.p.
  7. Perhaps one of the most notable aspects of this case is the fact that Benjamin Roberts entered it under his daughter’s name. That is, the title is in fact “Sarah Roberts v. The City of Boston.” At five years old, this is a remarkable (and quite likely attention-gathering) decision. Benjamin Roberts was able to make this decision “under a statue which provided that any child, illegally excluded from the public schools, might recover damages against the city” (Levy 512.)