Robert Morris Sr. was the second African-American to be sworn into the Massachusetts bar, but the first to practice actively. He was the first Black lawyer in the U.S. to win a lawsuit in 1847 and the first to argue before an appellate court in America but his achievements and contributions are unsung.
He became the first African American to hold a judicial office. At the Second Annual James Otis Lecture on September 17, 2009, he was described thus: “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.”
Born in Salem, Massachusetts on June 8, 1823, Morris had some formal education at Master Dodge’s School in Salem. He then became the student of abolitionist and lawyer, Ellis Gray Loring.
He was admitted to the bar in 1847 and shortly afterward, Morris became the first Black lawyer to file a lawsuit on behalf of a client in the history of the nation. A jury ruled in favor of Morris’s client and, according to Black Past, Morris recorded his feelings and observations about his first jury trial:
“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 county…”
Morris defended African-American civil rights in legal cases on Boston school desegregation, slavery and citizenship, according to WBUR. He filed and tried the first U.S civil rights challenge to segregated schools in the 1848 case of Roberts v. Boston. Together with abolitionist lawyer Charles Summer, Morris pressed the case which is believed to be the first legal challenge to the “separate but equal” practice of segregation in America.
The arguments of Morris and Summer “echoed” through the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case in which justices ruled unanimously that schools had to be desegregated.
Still fighting for civil rights, Morris worked with others to oppose the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. On February 15, 1851, with the help of Lewis Hayden, Morris reportedly found a way to remove from the courthouse, newly arrested fugitive slave Shadrack Minkins. He helped him to get to Canada and freedom.
Along with others, Morris was arrested on a federal charge of aiding and abetting. They were later acquitted of the charges.
In the 1850s, Morris became a justice of the peace and was admitted to practice before U.S. district courts. From time to time, he served as a magistrate in courts in Boston and nearby Chelsea, Massachusetts. According to BlackPast, “although these were not high judicial offices, his service gave him the distinction of being the first African American to have exercised some judicial power”.
During the Civil War, Morris supported President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers but was against the enlistment of African Americans unless they received fair and equal treatment and were offered positions as officers. He later helped in the recruitment of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first officially sanctioned African American unit in the U.S. Army.
While practicing law in Boston and Chelsea, Morris represented many, including Irish Catholic immigrants. According to reports, he was so successful that he became known as the “Irish Lawyer”.
Morris along the way took in an 11-year-old Irish immigrant who was being harassed by others. Training him in the law, the boy, Patrick Collins, became the first Irish Catholic Congressman from Massachusetts and, in 1902, the second Irish Catholic mayor of Boston. Collins served as a pallbearer at Morris’s funeral. Morris died in Boston on December 12, 1882, at the age of 59.