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Participation in the Massachusetts Courts

Boston Courthouse Courtesy Boston Athenæum

For more than three centuries, African Americans have fought to achieve full participation and justice at every level of the Massachusetts court system.

In Massachusetts colonial courts, both enslaved and free African Americans could only participate as litigants—plaintiffs or defendants in a legal action—or as witnesses. Not until the 19th century were blacks admitted to the bar as attorneys, or allowed to serve as jurors. The first African American judge was not appointed in Massachusetts until 1883.

Further expansion of the black role in the legal system was disappointingly slow and remained so until the second half of the 20th century when black attorneys began to be hired in the private and public sectors, and African Americans gained appointments at all levels of the state and federal courts.


Document appointing George L. Ruffin as judge of the Charlestown Municipal Court.
Courtesy Heslip-Ruffin Family Papers, Amistad Research Center at Tulane University




George Lewis Ruffin
Governor Benjamin F. Butler took an historic step by appointing George L. Ruffin as judge of the Charlestown Municipal Court. This was the first appointment of an African American as a judge in Massachusetts.


“There is no man in the U.S. happier in the thought of your elevation to the honorable office you now hold… ”— Frederick Douglass, in a letter to Ruffin dated, November 28, 1883