1.4.1. New England (1865-1900): Civil Rights After the Civil War

  • On the eve of the Civil War, New England states were far ahead of others in conferring rights on their black residents.  There were few “black laws” restricting blacks’ civil, economic and social rights, and unlike the rest of the North, most New England states allowed black males to vote.  Nevertheless, New England was far from a racial paradise:  discrimination prevailed as a matter of custom, if not law, in many areas. 
  • In 1875 Congress, at the urging of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, enacted a federal “accommodations law” prohibiting racial discrimination in restaurants, hotels and other public places.  The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in 1883; in reaction, many New England states enacted their own versions of the accommodations law.  Sumner’s home state had enacted an accommodations law at the end of the war.  Very few lawsuits were brought under the accommodations laws, probably because so few blacks lived in New England; but in the few cases that did arise, courts interpreted the laws more narrowly than many courts in other regions.

Roberts v. City of Boston – Massachusetts, 1849 (59 Mass. 198); Commonwealth v. Sylvester – Massachusetts, 1866 (95 Mass. 247); Faulkner v. Solazzi – Connecticut, 1907 (65 A. 947)

  • In the 1840s, Boston was one of the few American cities that maintained a comprehensive public school system – but its system was segregated.  In Roberts, the Massachusetts supreme court rejected a challenge to segregation; the court held that it must defer to local school officials’ decisions on the best way to group students, and rejected an argument that the state constitution’s equal-rights clause prohibited segregation.  Roberts became a source of embarrassment to the state:  the legislature banned segregation in 1855, and after the Civil War many Southern courts pointed to Roberts as justification for upholding segregation in their states.
  • Few civil rights cases made their way to New England supreme courts in the late 19th century – perhaps because few blacks lived in the region, perhaps because segregation was not as prevalent there as in other parts of the nation.  Sylvester and Solazzi are examples of New England courts’ propensity to interpret accommodations laws in the few cases that came before them.  In Sylvester, Massachusetts’s supreme court refused to extend the law to billiard parlors; in Solazzi, Connecticut’s supreme court refused to extend the law to barber shops.  Both courts interpreted their state’s laws as being limited to hotels, inns and other places traditionally available to travelers, ignoring the fact that the 19th century had transformed travel and business and created a wealth of other places open to the public. 

School segregation ended
State accommodations law enacted

New Hampshire



Rhode Island


U.S. Senator Charles Sumner (Massachusetts, 1850-1874) - courtesy Library of Congress

Boston Latin School, 1886 - courtesy Wikimedia Commons