Humanities to Go Featured Presenter: Dr. Kabria Baumgartner

Dr. Baumgartner is Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of New Hampshire. She joined our Humanities to Go program last fall to offer a fascinating new presentation, “A Practical Experiment”: School Desegregation on Trial in Antebellum Boston, based on her recent book. We asked Dr. Baumgartner to tell us more about her program and her research.

Tell us about In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America (New York University Press, 2019).

This book explores the history of school desegregation in the nineteenth-century Northeast, and it does so from the perspective of young African American women. I argue that young African American women fought to democratize public and private education, specifically public high schools, private female seminaries, and the teaching profession. Before this book, the stories of these women had been underexplored or read as one-offs. My book narrates these stories, in totality, revealing a network of young African American women who worked together to try to achieve educational access, equality, and equity. They were indeed educational reformers and should be regarded as such, alongside more well-known white educational reformers like Horace Mann, often called the father of public education, or Catherine Beecher, an advocate for white women’s education.

Your new Humanities to Go program focuses on the case of Sarah Roberts in Boston, can you tell us a bit about the significance of that particular case?

This year, 2020, marks the 170th anniversary of the Roberts v. City of Boston case in Massachusetts. It was probably one of the first school desegregation cases in the United States. It involved a five-year-old African American girl, Sarah Roberts, who wanted to attend the all-white primary school closest to her home in Boston. The Massachusetts Judicial Supreme Court ruled against her, arguing that the Boston school committee could organize the public schools as it saw fit. The doctrine of “separate but equal” was born.

My research has uncovered other aspects of the case, including the role of Sarah’s father and the social and cultural dimensions of Black girlhood.

The case is significant for a host of reasons, but my program highlights two of them: first, the battle over school integration took place in the nineteenth-century Northeast and, second, young African American children were at the center of these legal cases and they paid a very high cost.

How does your work on the nineteenth century inform issues about education in New England/New Hampshire today?

My work shows that there are historical roots to our modern-day educational challenges. In the nineteenth-century Northeast, young African American women helped spark the equal school rights movement, which sought to secure a quality education for all children regardless of race and gender. These young women and their allies pursued a range of strategies, including protesting, petitioning, boycotting, and filing lawsuits.

Despite their valuable work, which did have an impact on public education in and around the Northeast, we still have not solved the problem of racial segregation in public schools in this region and the United States more broadly. But there is a usable past here: we can study the kinds of arguments these activists made about citizenship and democracy and think about what that means today.

Watch our online calendar for scheduled dates for Dr. Baumgartner’s program “A Practical Experiment”: School Desegregation on Trial in Antebellum Boston, or book the program in your own community by visiting www.nhhumanities.org.