When Robert Morris completed his first jury trial in 1847, he recalled "there was something in the courtroom that made me feel like a giant. The courtroom was filled with colored people, and I could see, expressed on the faces of every one of them, a wish that I might win the first case that had ever been tried before a jury by a colored attorney in this country..."
Morris was one of the first African-American lawyers in the United States and the very first to file a lawsuit on behalf of a client.
Early Life and Educaiton
Morris was born on June 8, 1823 in Salem, Mass. Morris attended Master Dodge's School in Salem. As a young adult, he became the apprentice to Ellis Gray Loring, an attorney and abolitionist.
In 1847, Morris was granted a license to practice law in the state of Massachusetts and opened a law office with Macon Bolling Allen. The two men made history yet again--opening the first African-American law firm. Yet it was Morris' work as an attorney that brought him prestige. He was the frist African-American lawyer to file a lawsuit on a behalf of a client in the United States. In addition, Morris won the case.
Abolitionist and Attorney
Throughout Morris' career as an attorney, he was active in fighting for African-American rights as well as abolitionism. Some of his most notable cases include:
- Morris tried the first civil rights cased to desegregate public schools. In 1848, Robert v. Boston went to trial. It is believed that this was the first challenge to the "separate but equal" stance existing in American society. During the case, Morris and other lawyers argued "It is very hard to retain self-respect if we see ourselves set apart and avoided as a degraded race by others.. Do not say to our children that however well-behaved their very presence is in a public school, is contamination to your children." Lastly, they said that black schools do not provide the same level of education as the multiple forms of white schools, including "primary, grammar, Latin and high schools." The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled against the plaintiff in the case. As a result, it was used to support the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling in 1896. However, the "separate but equal" mantra was overturned in the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.
However, in April of 1855, Massachusetts' governor Henry Gardner signed a law desegregating public schools in the state. As a result, Massachusetts became the first state in the country to pass a law regarding the prohibition of racial segregation.
- Working with abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Loring and Wendell Phillips, Morris fought to oppose the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
Most notably, Morris worked with African-American abolitionists such as Lewis Hayden to assist fugitive slave Shadrack Minkins escape from a Boston courthouse and make his way to Canada. In addition to Minkins' case, Morris defended Anthony Burns, another fugitive slave. Although Morris was unsuccessful, the case received media attention in newspapers across the country. As a result, Burns' freedom was purchased by Boston abolitionists. Gaining his freedom, Burns attended Oberlin College and became a preacher.
In addition to fighting legal battles for the African-American community in Boston and the abolitionist cause, Morris was also an avid fundraiser for the movement. In 1859, for instance, Morris worked with the Vigilance Committee to raise more than $6,000 in aid for fugitive slaves.
During the 1850s, Morris was appointed as a justice of the peace. He was also able to practice law before U.S. District Courts. Morris was able to serve as a magistrate in courts throughout Boston and Chelsea, Mass.
At the start of the Civil War, Morris assisted in the recruitment of the 54th Regiment. In addition to helping with the recruitment initiative, Morris continued to discuss discrimination in the United States Army.
DeathMorris died in Boston on December 12, 1882.