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A new book tells the story of how Beacon Hill's black community mounted a pioneering legal challenge to school segregation

In Boston's long history, fame attaches to certain names: Paul Revere, John Hancock, Mary Baker Eddy, abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner, 20th-century politico James Michael Curley.

But what about Robert Morris, William Cooper Nell, and Benjamin Franklin Roberts? They were never famous, but a new book tries to secure their place as leaders of the first effort by free African-Americans to win the right to equal public education.

"Sarah's Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America," by a father-and-son writing team, tells the story of the black community of Beacon Hill, which rallied around an 1848 lawsuit to overturn legal racial segregation in Boston. The case of Roberts v. City of Boston remains a little-known landmark in the civil rights movement.

Stephen Kendrick, 50, is the senior minister of the First and Second Church on Marlborough Street, a Unitarian-Universalist congregation. Paul Kendrick, 21, Stephen's son and coauthor, is a senior at George Washington University and the president of the campus chapter of the NAACP. The family -- including Stephen's wife, Liz Kendrick, who is a social worker, and their son and two daughters -- moved to Boston only four years ago, but Stephen and Paul soon fell in love with the city's history.

In an interview at publisher Beacon Press on Mount Vernon Street, near where the events in the book took place, the authors explained that the project began with a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., at the former Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

"There's a timeline there," said Paul, who speaks with animation and easy eloquence, "with one small item at the beginning -- 'Roberts v. City of Boston' -- about a 5-year-old girl who had to pass five white schools on her way to her segregated school. We were taken aback. Why had we never heard of this case, that started a hundred-year march to Brown v. Board of Education?"

"It's not unknown," said Stephen. "It was noted in James [and Lois E.] Horton's 'Black Bostonians,' and other scholars were aware of it. But we thought it was not in the bloodstream of Boston's self-knowledge, and we wanted to tell the story."

A boycott and a precedent
In the 1840s, Boston's free black community was based on the "north slope" of Beacon Hill, across Pinckney Street, which divided the affluent and impoverished sides of the hill. Unlike most Massachusetts cities and towns, Boston still had legal school segregation, and the black children were crowded into the ill-equipped Abiel Smith School on Belknap (now Joy) Street, at the corner of a dead-end street now called Smith Court.

The old school, recently restored, is part of Boston's Museum of Afro American History, along with the adjacent African Meeting House. By the 1840s, it was overcrowded, had few teachers, and was starved for books and materials available to white schools.

After the Boston School Committee rejected a community complaint that its head teacher was an abusive racist, African-American historian and activist William C. Nell, community activist John Telemachus Hilton, and Robert Morris, one of the first black lawyers in America, organized a community boycott that dropped the Smith School's enrollment by 40 percent. In 1847, printer and activist Benjamin Franklin Roberts, who lived on Andover Street in the North End, became incensed that his little daughter Sarah had to walk every morning past several white schools to get to the inferior Smith School. After a policeman forcibly removed Sarah from a white school after her father enrolled her there, Roberts asked Morris to take on a suit against the city.

William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the Boston-based abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, and others believed the US Constitution was hopelessly corrupted by slavery and racism. But Roberts, foreshadowing the approach of Charles Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and others a century later, believed segregated schools were in "direct opposition to the Constitution and the laws of Massachusetts, respecting the equal rights of all the inhabitants."

Heard in the Suffolk County Court of Common Pleas, the case was lost, but Morris enlisted the prominent abolitionist lawyer Charles Sumner, later a US senator, to help him argue the appeal before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Other prominent whites were supporters.

Sumner argued eloquently, but in 1850 Judge Lemuel Shaw, a crusty old Brahmin who lived on Mt. Vernon Street, ruled against them, using an argument that would justify racial segregation until the Brown decision: that while African-Americans were full citizens, that did not forbid the school committee from maintaining separate schools for them and prohibiting them from attending white schools. As for the prejudice of such separation, Shaw ruled, "This prejudice, if it exists, is not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law." It was the effective birth of "separate but equal."

As it happened, school segregation was overturned statewide only five years later by an abolitionist majority in the Legislature (by that time, Boston was the only holdout), and the Smith School withered away. The black students were peacefully integrated into the schools.

But Shaw's ruling remained a central precedent used to justify segregation in later cases, notably the notorious Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, when the Supreme Court endorsed the "separate but equal" doctrine, and again in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, which reversed Plessy. De jure segregation in Boston, though it was overturned, was in time followed by its de facto cousin, until another group of black parents filed another suit against the city in 1970, and this time won their case, in 1974.

Sarah Roberts's story has a contemporary resonance, as some studies find that schools across America are gradually, or in some cases rapidly, resegregating. A report issued last month by the Harvard Civil Rights Project wrote that "public school students across the nation are increasingly segregated by race, poverty, and educational opportunity."

A family collaboration
The Kendricks might seem to some an unlikely pair to tell this story. Though they live around the corner from Smith Court, they are relative newcomers to the city. Still, they have a strong devotion to their subject.

Stephen Kendrick, educated at Princeton and Harvard Divinity School, grew up in Clinton, Tenn., whose segregated schools were themselves the subject of a lawsuit by black parents in 1950; it too was thrown out by a judge who ruled that the black high school's facilities were equal to white schools'. After the Brown decision, Clinton High was the first white high school in the South to be integrated, though not peacefully. There was intermittent conflict, and the school was destroyed by a bomb in 1958. But it was rebuilt, and integration finally came.

Stephen Kendrick was minister to several churches after divinity school, most recently in West Hartford, Conn., where Paul grew up. Paul says he always had a passion for civil rights, and though it was his father who first raised the idea of a book about the Roberts story, both authors agree that the junior partner supplied more than half of the drive.

"I have spent the last few years of my life trying to bring people into the struggle for civil rights," said Paul, "so when we came across this story, I was absolutely determined that it had to get out now -- I wasn't waiting until I'm 30 or 40. I knew I could do this, with this guy's help," he said, pointing to his father.

Stephen says he wrote the proposal that Beacon Press ultimately accepted, but that he and Paul shared the research equally and that his son wrote about 70 percent of the book, what he calls "the narrative spine." Though Stephen's busy ministry precluded a full-time effort, Paul took off six months from his junior year of college, in 2003, and immersed himself in the project.

"I hovered over at the Athenaeum and read every issue of The Liberator for 35 years," he said. "I wanted to know: Where did you get your hair cut in this community? Where did you do your grocery shopping? Where did the women gossip and the men talk politics? I wanted to know everything about this community, and once we did that, I wrote 12 hours a day."

Both Kendricks see their book as against the "great-man" style of writing history. While Sumner played a part, none of the drivers of the Smith School movement were famous, then or now. Garrison has his statue on Commonwealth Avenue, but not Morris, Roberts, or Nell.

"So often we look only at a Garrison or a [Frederick] Douglass," Paul Kendrick said, "but these people never thought someone would be writing about them in 150 years. They were just trying to create a better life for their children. This was a black-led civil rights struggle in the age of abolitionism, with effective white allies."

As white men, did the Kendricks have misgivings about taking on this story, especially when local African-American leaders have worked to save and restore the history of the old community on Beacon Hill?

Stephen Kendrick says state Representative Byron Rushing, former director of the Museum of Afro American History, and many others deserve enormous credit for their work in this history. Even so, he says, whites too had a role in the Roberts case, as they did in other struggles for civil rights.

In a telephone interview, Rushing dismissed any concern about the race of the authors. "The most important thing is to get the story out," Rushing said. "If all the African-American history that needs to be written is to be written, black scholars could not do it by themselves -- there aren't enough of them."

"We have thought about this seriously from the word go," said Stephen Kendrick, "with all the sensitivity we can muster. You don't want to be accused of appropriating others' history. But in the end, this is a Boston story, a story of white and black together on Beacon Hill. If we are going to achieve change, it's got to be white and black together."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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