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Class Struggle

Reviewed by Alicia L. Young
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page BW04


The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America

By Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick

Beacon. 300 pp. $26

Legal decisions can be like peepholes to history. From a court's written opinion, we can see the parties to the case and sometimes what brought them before the law. But like someone who is denied the full range of vision, we often have no sense of the drama outside the aperture.

At the center of Sarah's Long Walk, by Stephen and Paul Kendrick, are the circumstances that led Benjamin Roberts, a frustrated African American father, to file suit in 1848 so that his daughter could attend a school near her home on Beacon Hill instead of walking past five white schools to get to the blacks-only one. The ultimately unsuccessful legal case -- how it came about and the court's response -- is fundamental to the book but fortunately not all there is. The Kendricks also introduce pivotal African Americans in Boston who led the campaigns that resulted, in 1855, in blacks' access to white public schools with far better educational resources and opportunities.

The black men and women who are portrayed in Sarah's Long Walk were just as renowned within their communities as William Lloyd Garrison and other white abolitionists of that period whose names and stories have been repeated far more often. Details abound in the book about where the members of this community were from, how they knew each other and -- mostly absent in other historical accounts -- the challenges they faced in working with whites for social justice in a time before that term existed.

The crux of the difficulty was that white abolitionists saw no obvious connection between their campaign to end slavery and the efforts of blacks to secure civil rights. Segregation and open racial discrimination in "free" states were as entrenched as slavery was in the South. Indeed, many of the blacks in Boston were escapees who lived their lives constantly on guard for slave catchers who could return them to slavery.

Sarah's Long Walk is difficult to plod through at times; there is little dramatic tension or moving insight about the motivations of the people the Kendricks describe. However, this does not necessarily detract from the revelations in the vast but little known historical data with which the Kendricks enlighten us. The authors mined letters, period newspapers, court documents and archives to provide a textured history in which African Americans are central. There was William Cooper Nell, a historian and journalist for both the Liberator, the newspaper founded and edited by Garrison, and, for a while, Frederick Douglass's paper, the North Star. Nell tirelessly stoked the black community's engagement in the campaign for integration over the many years that the movement's momentum ebbed and flowed. He had close ties to Robert Morris, the African American lawyer who was only 27 when he represented Benjamin Roberts's claim on behalf of his daughter, Sarah, in her bid to attend an integrated school. Morris was free, but "only one generation separated him from" his grandfather, a slave who had survived the transatlantic Middle Passage. When Morris took up the Roberts case, he had already distinguished himself when he won his first case in Boston, in 1847, thereby becoming the first black man to win a jury trial in the United States.

Benjamin Roberts had also come from a family that was politically active. After writing articles for Garrison's Liberator urging that blacks be considered Americans instead of subjects for deportation to Africa, Roberts set out to print a newspaper in which the "black community's voice was [not] muffled, interpreted and inflected by a white abolitionist perspective." Roberts was never quite able to sustain his own newspaper. He attributed a large degree of his failure to the absence of support from Garrison and other white abolitionists. The Kendricks suggest that his choice in selecting an African American attorney to represent Sarah's claim was informed by the trauma of his newspaper's failure. Speaking about the black community's eventual success in integrating Boston's schools, Roberts reportedly said, "The cause of equal school privileges originated with us. Unaided and unbiased we commenced the struggle."

Boston became the first major American city to peacefully integrate its schools. Of course, the irony is that by the time Brown v. Board of Education was decided almost a century later, Boston's schools were segregated again. And the violence that erupted in the city because of the subsequent court-ordered integration became as emblematic of white racism as the violence in Alabama had been a generation earlier.

However, Sarah's Long Walk is not pessimistic about the cyclical nature of victories and defeats in the battle for racial justice. Instead, the authors share a poignant reminder not to despair: "Any gains will always have to be painstakingly recaptured over and over again, and so we might as well get on with it. . . . The power of racism is vast and deep-rooted, and it is impossible to 'win' except by the constant application of repeated failures that take us, inch by inch, toward a little decency in our common life." •

Alicia L. Young is a writer and former civil rights attorney who lives in New York City.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company