The Second Annual James Otis Lecture

September 17, 2009


        Our second James Otis Lecture highlighted the remarkable life and times of Robert Morris, Sr.  (1823 - 1882).  Morris was the second African-American to be sworn into the Massachusetts bar, but the first to practice actively here. 

He was the first African-American in the country to try (and win) a civil case (in 1847) and the first to argue before an appellate court in America.  He was also the first the first African-American to hold a judicial office.

    Morris’s achievements were legion, but he has been largely lost to history.  He was a giant in the Massachusetts legal profession before and after the Civil War, and he played a central role in several  key legal developments in America during his career.  He faced adversity, bigotry and hatred with courage and a firm belief in the law and in himself.

    In 1849, Morris joined with Charles Sumner in challenging legal segregation in Boston’s elementary schools.  Black children were required to attend the Belknap School  just off what is now Joy Street, even if other schools were closer to their homes. 

    The case was tried on stipulated facts, which included a stipulation that the elementary schools were “separate”  for “colored” and white children but otherwise the same in faculty and facilities.  From that, the United States Supreme Court later derived the  concept of “separate but equal,” a phrase that would haunt race relations in the country for over a century. 

    In the case, Roberts v. City of Boston, Morris and Sumner argued that segregating children by race was inherently discriminatory and damaging to the black children.  They argued that  requiring black children to attend an all- black school in essence violated the statute that required cities and towns to provide eduction for all children, even though the statute did not specify how each school system was to be arranged.

       Legendary Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, writing for a unanimous Court, ruled that decisions on placement and education of children rested with the School Committee and the Legislature, not with the Court.

He held that the Legislature and School Committee had complied with the existing statute because Sarah Roberts and other African-American children in fact had two schools available to them.   Neither the State Constitution nor the applicable statute compelled integrated schools as long as schools were available to all children.  The decision was in keeping with Justice Shaw’s longstanding views of the roles of the separate branches of government.  To see a copy of the opinion, click Roberts.v.Boston.pdf.

    Morris was not deterred.  He joined with William Cooper Nell, Lewis Hayden, William Lloyd Garrison and other giants of the abolition movement to form a grass roots movement to pressure the legislature to change the law.   On April 28, 1855,  Governor Henry Gardner signed a bill into law prohibiting racial segregation in public schools.  Gardner was a member of the “Know-Nothing”  party. Massachusetts became the  first state in the Union to adopt such a law.

    Morris was one of the leaders of the Boston Vigilance Society, formed in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to fight slavery and to protect those who had escaped bondage and settled in the North.  In one of the preludes to the Civil War, Morris helped free a runaway slave Shadrach Minkins after Minkins had been captured by slave hunters.  Having failed in a petition for Habeas Corpus, Morris, Lewis Hayden (left)

and others devised a plan to break into the jail and carry Minkins to freedom. 

    Under orders from President Millard Fillmore, Morris was tried for violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and faced a potential death sentence.  Morris was represented by Richard Henry Dana author of Two Years Before the Mast.  He was acquitted after a trial, in part based on the testimony of an alibi witness who swore Morris was not involved in the jail break.  The witness was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, Lemuel Shaw, who had ruled against him in the Roberts case.

    Morris returned to practicing law in Boston and Chelsea, and built a very successful practice that included representing Irish Catholic immigrants - no small feat in a time of bitter hatred and mistrust between blacks and Irish Catholics in the wake of the Potato Famine.  He was so successful that he became known as the “Irish Lawyer”.

    Morris took particular note of an 11 year old Irish immigrant who was being harassed and beaten by others to and from his way to school.  Perhaps remembering the bigotry he faced as a child, Morris took the young boy in and began to train him in the law. 

    Patrick Collins became the first Irish Catholic Congressman from Massachusetts and, in 1902, the second Irish Catholic mayor of Boston.  Collins served as a pall bearer at Morris’s funeral.


Patrick Collins

Mayor of Boston


Robert Morris, Sr.






Otis Lecture Faculty, 2009


The Honorable Roderick L. Ireland
Associate Justice, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

Justice Roderick L. Ireland is the senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial

Court.  He was appointed in 1997, and is the first African-American to sit on this bench in its over three hundred year history. Previously, he served at the Massachusetts Appeals Court for seven years, and the Boston Juvenile Court for almost thirteen years.

Justice Ireland received his B.A. from Lincoln University, J.D. from Columbia University Law School, LL.M. from Harvard Law School, and Ph.D. in Law, Policy and Society from Northeastern University. He began his legal career in 1969 as a Neighborhood Legal Services attorney, and then worked as a public defender from 1971 to 1973 with the Roxbury Defenders Committee, first as chief attorney, then deputy and executive director. From 1975 to 1977 he served as Assistant Secretary and Chief Legal Counsel for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Administration and Finance. In 1977 he was also Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Appeal on Motor Vehicle Liability Policies and Bonds.

    Justice Ireland has been an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University since 1978, and has been on the faculty of the Appellate Judges Seminar at New York University Law School since 2001. He is the author of Massachusetts Juvenile Law, 2d edition, 2006, published by West Publishing; the first edition was published in 1993.

    Justice Ireland has received a number of honors and awards, including the Great Friend of Justice Award from the Massachusetts Bar Foundation (2008); the Judicial Excellence Award from the Massachusetts Bar Association and Lawyers Weekly Newspaper (2001); the Judicial Excellence Award from the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys (1999); the St. Thomas More Award from Boston College Law School (1998); the Judicial Excellence Award from the Massachusetts Judges Conference (1996); the Distinguished Judicial Service Award from the Boston Bar Association (1990); the Boston Covenant Peace Prize (1982); and a number of honorary Doctor of Law degrees. Active in his community, Justice Ireland is a frequent speaker in schools, churches and community forums.


The Honorable Julian T. Houston (Ret.)
Chair, Long Road to Justice

Justice Julian T. Houston was a Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court for almost two decades. 

In 1984, Judge Houston convened a group of seven senior, minority criminal justice professionals in his chambers at the Roxbury Court to form the Justice George L. Ruffin Society. Since that time, he has been the inspiration for many Ruffin Society programs, including the Long Road to Justice exhibit. Judge Houston chairs the Executive Committee of the exhibit, and has overseen its development from the beginning.

Justice Houston was appointed a Justice of the Superior Court of Massachusetts in 1990. He had previously served for eleven years as a Justice of the Roxbury District Court.

    Judge Houston has been the architect of a number of innovative programs since his appointment to the bench: Roxbury Youthworks, Inc., a community based program providing services to young people, and the Roxbury District Court Child-Care Center, the first court-based child-care center in New England. In 1997, as a result of his leadership, a portrait of the Honorable Edward O. Gourdin, the first African American to serve on the Superior Court, was commissioned and unveiled. It is the only portrait of an African American Superior Court Justice hanging in a Massachusetts courtroom.

    Judge Houston served as a Trustee of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for many years and led the planning for the 1994 week-long Tribute to Roland Hayes, which honored the first African American concert singer.

    Judge Houston is a graduate of Boston University and Boston University School of Law.


Reverend Stephen  Kendrick

Senior Minister, First Church in Boston

Reverend Stephen Kendrick has been a Unitarian Universalist

minister for nearly 25 years, and brings a wealth of knowledge about Robert Morris and ante bellum Boston to our 2009 Lecture Series.    Stephen  and his son Paul co-authored the award winning book  Sarah’s Long Walk (Beacon Press, 2004) that details the life and work of Robert Morris, the second African-American lawyer in America and the first to try a civil case to t a jury.  Morris was co-counsel with Charles Sumner in a landmark case, Roberts v. City of Boston, in which the plaintiffs challenged the Constitutionality of racial segregation in public schools, and Reverend Kendrick’s book  brilliantly surveys the history and culture that preceded and  followed the Roberts decision.  Stephen and Paul also co-authored  and Douglass and Lincoln (Walker and Co., 2008) a dual biography of perhaps the two most influential figures in 19th Century in America.  He is the author of Holy Clues (Pantheon, 1999) and Night Watch (Pantheon, 2001).

    Stephen came to Boston in 2001, successor to Rev. Rhys Williams’ 40 year ministry at First Church.  Stephen works tirelessly to grow the congregation in spirit and warmth, and to make First Church a visible and strong progressive voice in Boston life.

    Reverend Kendrick has served as minister at The Universalist Church of West Hartford, Connecticut, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Howard County (now named Columbia), Maryland, the Unitarian Church of York, Pennsylvania and Unitarian chapels in the Midlands, England. His partner is Elizabeth Kendrick, a social worker, and he is the happy father of Paul, Anna, and Elizabeth.



Justice IrelandCon.Day.Dinner.html
Justice HoustonCon.Day.Dinner.html
Mr. KendrickCon.Day.Dinner.html