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Separate but Equal

The principle of education for blacks that would be "separate but equal" with that of whites was widely supported in the American South before the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1953. The idea, however, originated not in the South but the North. Before the Civil War, the notion the black and whites were actually equal was only weakly held in the North and not at all in the South. Consequently, "separate but equal" was a relatively progressive concept for the time. Not enough so to satisfy Charles Sumner, a determined Massachusetts abolitionist, who in 1849 argued that the City of Boston was not entitled to require Sarah C. Roberts, a five-year-old black girl, who was denied the opportunity to attend a neighborhood white school and was thus forced to walk a half mile to a school for blacks. In his argument before the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Sumner reasoned that:

The equality declared by our fathers in 1776, and made the fundamental law of Massachusetts in 1780, was Equality before the law. Its object was to efface all political or civil distinctions, and to abolish all institutions founded upon birth. "All men are created equal," says the Declaration of Independence. "All men are born free and equal," says the Massachusetts Bill of Rights. These are not vain words. Within the sphere of their influence no person can be created, no person can be born with civil or political privileges not enjoyed equally by all his fellow-citizens; nor can any institution be established recognizing any distinction of birth. Here is the Great Charter of every human being drawing the vital breath upon this soil, whatever may be his condition and whoever may be his parents.
The court praised his argument but decided in favor of the City of Boston. In the Jim Crow South before 1953, "equal" was a farce. No actual attempt was made to provide blacks with equal facilities or opportunities. However, in its ruling on Brown, the Supreme Court went further and ruled that the very concept of "separate but equal" was unconstitutional. However excellent the facilities for blacks might become, if there were educational institutions reserved for whites then blacks were not receiving equal treatment.