The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan E. Goodman, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
More than a full century before Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Little Rock Nine (1957), Ruby Bridges (1960), and the Civil Rights Movement, 4-year-old Sarah Roberts entered the Otis School in Boston to begin her education in 1847. Her student days ended quickly when a policeman pulled her out of her classroom and “said she could never come back. Ever.” The reason? The color of Sarah’s skin: Otis was for white children; African Americans had to “go to a separate school just for them.”
Sarah’s parents decided to fight, much like Sarah’s grandfather who had been a soldier in the Revolutionary War, “fighting to free Americans from unfair laws.” They chose Robert Morris, the country’s second African American lawyer, who worked two full years to get Sarah’s case to the highest Massachusetts court. Morris asked Charles Sumner – a white lawyer who “despised the way his country treated African Americans” – to join him. Sarah’s case “was the first case asking our legal system to outlaw separate schools. It was the first time an African American lawyer argued before a supreme court. It was also the first time an African American lawyer and a white lawyer teamed up to fight for justice.”
Sarah’s 1849 case made history, but it didn’t change history … then. Six years later, in 1855, Boston became the first major U.S. city to integrate its schools. That the whole country would finally follow Boston’s example would take another 99 years when another little girl, Linda Brown, would attempt to enter a white school – “named, oddly enough, after Charles Sumner” – in 1950, and four years later, finally win the fight against segregation, not only for herself, but for all children across the country.
Award-winning nonfiction children’s author Susan E. Goodman tells Sarah’s powerful story with simple, inspiring intensity: by pulling Sarah’s 19th-century history forward over the next hundred-plus years connects 21st-century readers to the ongoing struggles for equality. Acclaimed artist E.B. Lewis’ breathtaking illustrations amplify Goodman’s rallying text, creating visually stunning statements on a single spread: 4-year-old Sarah driven away from school by the looming policeman is almost a mirror image of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted by the federal marshals toward school over a century later (iconically depicted in Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With”).
Progress, even when long overdue, happens.
Of course, the long march for equity and justice continues today: for every “[t]hree steps forward, one step back. One step forward, three back,” as Goodman writes. Basic civil rights may be guaranteed in our laws, but lawmakers, law-keepers, law-enforcers, ironically, are not always willing to honor them [three steps back? North Carolina, Mississippi, Trump]. As for the next step forward … history seems to prove: let the children lead the way.