Boston: Phillips School

Last week we learned about George Middleton and I mentioned that one of the causes he supported was that of equal education rights.  Throughout the majority of Boston's history schooling was racially segregated, as it was across most of America.  One of the most visible symbols of that struggle, and the eventual success that was found from years of effort, is the Phillips School.

Originally built in 1824, the school on the corner of Pinckney and Anderson Streets first housed the English High School - America's first public high school, which had been founded just three years earlier.  The school only admitted white males, although a school for girls was also established in 1824.  By 1844, English High School had moved to downtown Boston (next to Boston Latin School), and the building in Beacon Hill was converted to a grammar school.  The new Phillips Grammar School was named after Boston's first mayor, John Phillips, and remained a white-only school because all black children had to attend Abiel Smith School a few blocks to the northeast.

The sharp contrast in the quality of education provided by the two schools became the cause behind a prolonged effort to provide equal education opportunities for several decades.  A man named Benjamin Roberts attempted to enroll his daughter into the now-coed Phillips School, arguing that it was the closest one to their home and that state law was mute on the distinction of race, but was turned away by the principle.  Roberts filed suit on behalf of his daughter.  In 1849, the issue of segregated schooling went all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled that it was a legal practice under the state's constitution.  The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, was eventually used as precedent in the notorious "separate but equal" ruling of the United States Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson nearly 50 years later.

Within a few years, many families began withdrawing their children from the Smith School, which created the impetus for the state legislature becoming involved.  By 1855, legalized integration finally became a reality.  Smith School was closed that same year and Phillips School, which was recognized as one of the finest schools in the area, became the educational home for children of all races.  It was not the end of the road, unfortunately, as the 20th century would witness more crises in education desegregation across the city.  But the Phillips School building, which was converted to a private residence after the school moved to a new building, stands today along the Black Heritage Trail as a reminder of the successful perseverance of those individuals who struggled for equality.  You can see images of the school and learn more at the National Park Service's website here:


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