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Lawyer Robert Morris fought — sometimes physically — to free the enslaved | Michael Coard

Morris wasn’t the nation’s first Black lawyer — but he left a big mark on history

Attorney Robert Morris (Image via The Philadelphia Tribune).

By Michael Coard

You’ve heard of Thurgood Marshall as the litigator in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, Charles Hamilton Houston as the strategist who laid the foundation for all major civil rights lawsuits of the 1950s and 1960s, and Johnnie Cochran as the smooth trial lawyer who exposed racism throughout the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1990s.

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But you probably have never heard of Robert Morris, the fearless brains and brawn attorney who argued intellectually — and fought physically — in court to free enslaved Blacks.

Morris’ most notorious courtroom battle happened 171 years ago on Feb. 15, 1851, when he, along with educator, businessman, Underground Railroad conductor and formerly enslaved Lewis Hayden and abolitionist Edward G. Walker (son of the fiery David Walker whose incendiary anti-slavery “David Walker’s Appeal” was published in 1829) courageously forced their way into a Boston courtroom, beat up court officers and U.S. marshals, and freed Shadrach Minkins, who had been arrested pursuant to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Minkins, who had no birth certificate but was born sometime around 1817 in Norfolk, had escaped slavery in Virginia at the approximate age of 33 in 1850 and arrived in Boston, where he found a job as a waiter.

Later, on Sept. 18 that year, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act that required sheriffs, private citizens (who were deputized), and other law enforcement authorities throughout the country to arrest anyone in a free state who was merely accused of having escaped slavery anywhere in the country. If those authorities refused to do so, they could be fined $1,000 (which in 2022 equals $35,743.85).

In addition, the act punished anyone who aided an accused “slave fugitive” with shelter or food. The punishment consisted of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Furthermore, the act did not allow an accused Black person to testify and present evidence that he or she was legally free by having been born free or by having purchased his or her freedom. Moreover, it paid a court magistrate $10 if he ruled against the person but only $5 if he ruled for the person.

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Under this unimaginably cruel act, many escapees from slavery were re-enslaved and many free Blacks were enslaved.

After someone snitched on Minkins five months after his arrival in Boston, he was taken into custody by U.S. marshals. As described by the Massachusetts Historical Society, “On Saturday morning, February 15, 1851, two officers posing as customers at Taft’s Cornhill Coffee House seized the waiter Shadrach Minkins, a ‘stout, copper-colored man’ ….”

After Minkins was shackled and transported to the local federal courthouse, attorney Morris, joined by three woke white abolitionist attorneys, namely Ellis Gray Loring, Richard Henry Dana Jr. and Samuel Sewall, together agreed to provide pro bono representation. They then filed a thoroughly researched and meticulously written legal brief setting forth unimpeachable arguments.

Despite that, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled against Minkins.

But Morris wouldn’t take no for an answer. He was a practitioner of Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” approach to racial problem-solving at least 74 years before Brother Malcolm was born in 1925.

That explains why Morris hooked up with his homies Hayden and Walker, who were supported by a group of mostly Black revolutionaries and several white allies. The Massachusetts Historical Society points out that “a crowd of black and white abolitionists entered the courthouse, overcame armed guards and forced their way into the courtroom. In a chaotic struggle, [they wrestled] Minkins from his court officers ….”

After Minkins was able to escape from the courthouse, he was whisked away to an Underground Railroad safe house in Beacon Hill. He temporarily hid out there in an attic, thanks to the Boston Vigilance Committee, until he fled to Canada, where he lived the remainder of his life as a free man with his family in Montreal.

Although that was a happy ending, it wasn’t the complete end of the story. That’s because Morris, along with Hayden, who was described as the ringleader, and eight others were indicted on an order from President Millard Fillmore and arrested for attacking the court officers and marshals before freeing Minkins. Although charges against some of those eight were dropped, Morris, Hayden and a few others were brought to trial.

Fortunately, they all were acquitted. Now that’s a completely happy ending.

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Oh, and by the way, Morris’ courtroom and on-street activism eventually helped lead to the abolition of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1864 largely as a result of not only the Minkins case but also an earlier Anthony Burns case, both of which involved men who had escaped enslavement in Virginia and fled to Massachusetts.

Before concluding this happy ending, I must share more information about the astounding and courageous Morris, who was born June 8, 1823, in Salem, Massachusetts.

His educational background is absolutely amazing. At age 15, he was employed as a servant for the aforementioned Loring, who was so impressed with Morris’ intellect that he began tutoring him to become a lawyer. Loring later presented Morris to the Massachusetts bar for admission after he had passed that state’s exam in 1847.

Although Morris wasn’t technically the first Black person in America to become a lawyer — Macon Bolling Allen was when he passed the Maine bar exam in 1844 — former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman, former Howard University professor and author J. Clay Smith Jr. in “Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944” wrote that Morris was “the first really successful colored lawyer in America.”

Morris also was the first Black lawyer to file a lawsuit.

That happened in the 1848 Roberts v. Boston case in which he sued, as reported in courthousenews.com, “over the lack of school access for black children in Boston … [a city that] had 159 white-exclusive schools in the 1840s, while black children had [only] two ….” Regrettably, the racist Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that Boston’s anti-Black student policy was neither “unreasonable” nor “illegal.” Despite that ruling, Morris’ lawsuit obviously laid the essential foundation for victory, albeit over 100 years later, in the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Moreover, Morris was the first Black lawyer to win a lawsuit, doing so a year earlier in 1847.

Additionally, Morris was the first Black lawyer to argue a case before an appellate court.

These accomplishments are even more awesome when you keep in mind that we’re talking about a Black lawyer who practiced law in America during slavery after becoming an attorney 18 years before slavery ended and who represented clients until he passed away in 1882 at age 59.

Hey, Black lawyers in 2022 and beyond: We gotta do better. We gotta stop being so scared and selfish and start being courageous and selfless. We gotta start being the resurrection of Robert Morris, Esquire.

Justice — by ANY means necessary!

Opinion contributor Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this column first appeared

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