On a Saturday morning in March 1851, the first black attorney to ever file a lawsuit in the United States stood in the federal courthouse in Boston where one month earlier he had joined a mob to free a fugitive slave.
Ordering that lawyer Robert Morris go to trial for treason, U.S. Commissioner Benjamin Hallett delivered a lengthy decision about what he termed a “willful violation of the law.”
“He who knows the law is the more guilty if he willfully violates it, or incites others to do so,” Hallet said, as quoted in March 10, 1851, edition of the Boston Post. “It is the defendant’s own act which has brought him into the peril in which he now stands, and which, if committed by the most distinguished member of the bar, or the bench, would produce the same result and the same judgment that are now to follow as the consequences of that act.”
Born in Salem in 1823, Morris had been a lawyer in Massachusetts since 1847 — only the second black American ever to do so and a member of the firm started by the first, Macon Bolling Allen.
Morris faced treason charges four years later over his representation of Shadrach Minkins, the first person charged in New England under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.
When he was captured, sparking massive outcry from Boston’s abolitionist community, Minkins had been working as a waiter at a Boston hotel.
Before Minkins could be returned to his former owner in Virginia, Morris was part of a group of 100 to 200 white and black abolitionists who stormed the courthouse to help Minkins escape.
Historians say this feat would not have been possible had Morris not petitioned the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in Massachusetts, for habeas corpus.
The petition itself was not itself successful, however, as the Fugitive Slave Law did not allow a person accused of being a runaway slave to defend themselves in court.
While Minkins eventually made it to Canada, settling in Montreal, Morris and two other alleged co-conspirators were charged with treason.
By November 1851, Morris was the last of the trio whose charges had not been dropped.
According to an account of his trial in the Nov. 7, 1851, edition of The Liberator, an attorney for Morris did not dispute that Morris aided in the escape, focusing instead on whether slaveowner John Debree could prove that Minkins was a legitimate slave under Virginia law.
Virginia slave owners were required then to produce documentation showing that either their slave was a slave in 1785 or that the slave’s mother or maternal grandmother was a slave at that time.
The argument was enough to delay a ruling from the court.
“The court having taken time to consider this point, said that the questions argued were of considerable importance as to some counts of the indictment, (those charging that Shadrach was held in service by the laws of Virginia,) and depend on questions of law with which the court profess no familiarity, and have not had time to investigate as they desire, and therefore, on this point they defer giving an opinion until some other stage of the case,” the Liberator reported.
A leading abolitionist voice in America before the Civil War, The Liberator announced one week later in its Nov. 14 edition that Morris had been acquitted of all charges.
“The rescue of Shadrach was so noble and praiseworthy an affair, that we hardly know whether to congratulate Mr. Morris on the return of a verdict, which, while it saves him from fine and imprisonment, cuts him off from the historical renown which would have attached to his name, in case he had been convicted,” the unsigned editorial stated. “But we are glad that the malice of wicked men has been frustrated. It is some honor to have been tried on such an accusation.”
In addition to his abolitionist work, Morris cemented his place in history as a champion of school equality: his suit over the lack of school access for black children in Boston marked the first time in the United States that a litigant was represented by a black attorney.
Boston had 159 white-exclusive schools in the 1840s, while black children had two options: one in the West End, where Boston’s black community in the mid-1800s was largely concentrated, and one on Beacon Hill.
Children who wished to enroll could only do so by applying to a school committee member for a ticket.
Sarah C. Roberts, a 5-year-old black girl, did just that in April 1847. The school closest to her home was not one of the city’s two schools for black children, however, and as recounted in an 1850 opinion by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Roberts’ application was “refused … on the ground of her being a colored person.”
Despite being denied a ticket, Roberts attempted to attend school anyway on Feb. 15, 1848. She was ejected by the teacher.
Morris took on Roberts’ case that same year, joined in the suit by white abolitionist lawyer Charles Sumner.
“Although the matters taught in the two schools may be precisely the same, a school exclusively devoted to one class must differ essentially, in its spirit and character, from that public school known to the law, where all classes meet together in equality,” the lawyers argued.
Morris and Sumner disputed the argument separate schools benefitted both races. “It tends to create a feeling of degradation in the blacks, and of prejudice and uncharitableness in the whites,” they argued.
The challenge made little impression, though, on the Supreme Judicial Court.
“The increased distance, to which the plaintiff was obliged to go to school from her father’s house, is not such, in our opinion, as to render the regulation in question unreasonable, still less illegal,” Justice Lemuel Shaw wrote for the court.
Morris learned the law, according to the 1993 book “Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944,” by J. Clay Smith Jr., while working as a servant for abolitionist lawyer Ellis Gray Loring.
In 1851, when Morris petitioned the SJC for habeas corpus on behalf of Minkins, other lawyers who offered their services included Loring, Samuel E. Sewall and Richard Henry Dana Jr.
While Morris continued to be an active attorney in the Boston area, his law partner Allen would go on to become the country’s first black justice of the peace.
Sumner established himself as a vocal abolitionist meanwhile when he became the Free Soil Party’s candidate for U.S. Senate, claiming a seat in the federal government’s upper house in 1851.
Morris was also an active member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, which sought to protect the city’s black residents from hate crimes and slave hunters.
With an estate worth more than $1,500, Morris died in 1882 at his home on West Newton Street in Boston, according to a journal published by the Institute for Massachusetts Studies at Westfield State College.