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Judicial Precedents and Setbacks

by april otterberg '06

William Lewis

William H. Lewis, standing, was appointed the first black Assistant Attorney General of the United States by President William Howard Taft in 1911. (Photo courtesy Boston Public Library)

Massachusetts' 'Long Road' to Racial Equality

Quock Walker is not a name that roles off the tongue, but it is one that should be remembered, according to the creator of an exhibit recently housed at the Law School.

Walker was a twenty-eight-year-old slave when he ran away from his Worcester County, Massachusetts, owner after a severe beating. Walker sued the owner for his freedom as well as damages for assault and battery. A jury awarded him both. Walker’s owner also was indicted criminally, and the jury found him guilty after being instructed by trial judge and then-Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice William Cushing that “perpetual servitude can no longer be tolerated” in light of the equality established in the Massachusetts Constitution. The year was 1781—eighty-four years before slavery officially ended in the United States.

The full story of achieving justice and equality, however, involves many more than Walker. That story was the focus of September’s panel discussion based on Long Road to Justice: The African American Experience in the Massachusetts Courts, an exhibit located in the Boston College Law Library from April to October last year. Funded through the George L. Ruffin Society, a nonprofit named after the first black judge in Massachusetts, the multimedia exhibit has traveled through Massachusetts courthouses, libraries, and law schools since it was unveiled in September of 2000.

The Honorable Julian T. Houston, associate justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, proposed creating the exhibit when he realized Massachusetts’ rich history concerning African Americans in the judicial system had all but disappeared—and not even into many history books. Few of his colleagues and fewer members of the general public, he says, recognized how African Americans in Massachusetts were able, in many cases, to count the Commonwealth’s judicial system as an ally on the path to equality.

Of course, that path was, as the exhibit is aptly titled, a long one. Massachusetts may have had a head start, in abolishing slavery and allowing African Americans to be witnesses and litigants long before other states did, but the Commonwealth was not always a positive trendsetter. Sadly, a Massachusetts ruling from 1850 upheld school segregation in Boston and later was cited as precedent by the US Supreme Court in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision—a case that preserved a legal racial dividing line for another sixty years. And though the Massachusetts legislature outlawed segregated schools in 1855, nearly 100 years before the Supreme Court did, segregation later reappeared in the state, and blacks and whites alike had to fight for desegregation again in the 1970s.

Gains in legal participation also seemed sluggish. African Americans were not admitted to the Massachusetts bar as attorneys until the mid-1800s, and the first black full-time judge was not appointed until 1883, with the next following in seventy-five years. Massachusetts received its first female African American attorney only in 1922, and it was not until 1979 that David S. Nelson ’60 became the first black appointed to a federal bench in Massachusetts.

But the fact that ground was gained eventually, the BC panelists argued, should not suggest the long road is complete. A particular area of concern, according to the Honorable Barbara Dortch-Okara ’74, herself only the second African American female to be appointed to the bench in the Massachusetts state court system, is that while the number of black attorneys has grown, the number of African Americans in leadership positions remains disproportionately low. While Massachusetts added 115 new judgeships—a 40 percent jump—between 1982 and 2003, the proportion of judges who are African American has increased only slightly, from 5.4 percent (sixteen judges) then, to 6.8 percent (twenty-eight judges) now.

With so few African American judges, it is clear that despite the encouraging milestones early on in Massachusetts, the legal system is not yet equal, a fact that makes it all the more important, the panelists contended, for those currently struggling for justice to draw inspiration from those who began the struggle long ago.

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