Connected \\ May 10, 2022
Graduate students dig into the papers of historic youth activists to tell the story of equal school rights in Salem
When white Salem residents successfully petitioned for the removal of the, “Coloured Children [that] have lately been admitted to the High Schools for Girls,” in 1834, Sarah Parker Remond, at the age of 10, and her sister, were expelled from the East School for Girls. This petition officially ushered in a racially separate public school system in Salem, and the city’s Black residents immediately began their nearly decade long fight for equal school rights. Youth activists, like Robert Morris and Sarah Parker Remond, led this movement that would eventually ignite change, locally, and then for the rest of the country.
Photographer in the United States, Sarah Parker Remond, about 1865, Albumen print. Gift of Miss Cecelia R. Babcock. Phillips Library, Salem Streets Collection, PH322. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum.
In the fall of 2021, our professor, Dr. Kabria Baumgartner, reached out to us about working with her and the staff at the Phillips Library and PEM on this exhibition, now titled Let None Be Excluded: The Origins of Equal School Rights in Salem. We, of course, accepted. As Public History graduate students at Northeastern University, we were excited to be a part of the telling of this important history and gain valuable experience in exhibition development.
In our role on the curatorial team, led by Dr. Baumgartner and Dan Lipcan, the Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library, we discovered transcribing 19th- century handwritten documents to be one of our biggest contributions. While the dynamic interaction with the documents made possible by their digitization helped make the handwriting more legible, the several rounds of rereading and editing made this work tedious. However, interacting with these primary sources so intimately was an amazing way to engage with some of the historical actors. We tackled two speeches by the prominent African American activist and lawyer Robert Morris, and two opinions given by then Salem town solicitor, Leverett Saltonstall. Each document came with its own challenges and insights. While the Morris documents were quite long, they revealed an extremely intelligent mind who referenced countless figures, literature and ideas in his arguments against the evils of segregation both in schools and other U.S. institutions. Saltonstall’s difficult handwriting required a great many hours to decipher, however, the reading and subsequent transcription of his opinions revealed the earliest known conceptualization of the separate but equal doctrine in his 1831 opinion.
Unknown artist, Robert Morris, mid 19th century photograph. © Social Law Library, Boston.