In 1848 Sarah Roberts, a five-year-old Negro girl, knocked timidly at the door of a Boston public school and asked admission as a student. Her request was denied; the school was for whites, and her skin was black. This incident precipitated what was probably the first segregation case ever to reach a United States court.
Abolitionist Charles Sumner, objecting to the treatment accorded Sarah took up her case. There was no 14th Amendment yet, but an 1845 state law had made it actionable to exclude any child unlawfully from public school. The case reached the State Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Shaw upheld the principle of segregation. His decision, in part, ran as follows:
"It is urged, that this maintenance of separate schools tends to deepen and perpetuate the odious distinction of caste, founded in a deep rooted prejudice in public opinion.
"Whether this distinction and prejudic, existing in the opinion and feeling of the community, would not be effectually fosted by compelling colored and white children to associate together in the same schools, may well be doubted: at all events, it is a fair and proper question for the committee to consider and decide upon, having in view the best interests of both classes of children placed under their superintendence, and we cannot say that their decision upon it is not founded on just grounds of reason and experience, and in the results of a discriminating and honest judgement."