outline of stateLong Road to JusticeThe African American Experience in the MA Courts

Litigation & landmark cases
Jury Duty
Selected Profiles
Ruffin Society
Exhibit History
Educational curriculum
Contributors & thanks
Credits & contact
Site map

Litigation and Landmark Cases

Massachusetts was one of the few American colonies in which African Americans could participate in the legal system as plaintiffs and defendants. Some blacks redressed their grievances in court and even won their freedom.

During and after the Civil War, black civil rights activists successfully campaigned for the first anti-discrimination legislation in the country and then tested its effectiveness through the courts. With the weakening of the federal Civil Rights Act in 1883, black plaintiffs worked to strengthen the Commonwealth’s own civil rights statutes and challenged institutionalized racism.

Throughout the 20th century, black plaintiffs continued their long fight, using the legal system to confront employers, schools and other institutions denying them fundamental constitutional rights.

Harvard Football team

Photo of Harvard Football Team. Courtesy of Harvard University Archives

Barber Shop Case
William H. Lewis, an outstanding student and captain of the Harvard football team in 1892, was turned away from a Harvard Square barbershop because of his race. Challenging the unofficial Jim Crow regulations, Lewis and attorney Butler Wilson persuaded the legislature to adopt legislation adding barbershops to the list of places where discrimination was prohibited.


Highland Skating Rink Case
In the 1880s and 1890s, African American community activists initiated test cases to force improvements in Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws. In a series of lawsuits, African American attorneys representing black Bostonians sued a number of skating rinks that refused admittance to people of color.


dance lessons  $5

Crawford v. Kent
In 1957, the Fred Astaire Dance Studio of Boston refused admission to David Crawford, a Boston University student who sought to join a dance class. After trial, Crawford won a $500 judgment against the studio, but the decision was overturned on appeal. The state’s Supreme Judicial Court reinstated the original judgment, holding that a dance studio was not a private organization operating for educational purposes—which the courts permitted to discriminate at that time—and could be held liable for damages for racial discrimination.