Long Road to Justice

The much-anticipated exhibition Long Road to Justice: The African-American Experience in the Massachusetts Courts will open in early fall 2000 at the new Suffolk County Courthouse on New Chardon Street in Boston. The exhibition explores the experiences of African Americans in the courts of the Commonwealth over three centuries. Sources for the exhibition include court records, historical artifacts, and an extensive variety of archival material. Through text, image, object, graphic design, and videotapes, the viewing public will learn how our courts shaped—and were shaped by—the African-American experience in Massachusetts.

The exhibition showcases court records, analyzing specific events in light of three fundamental principles of the judicial system: that courts exist to see that justice is done, that rights are established and codified, and that individuals and principles are protected under law. Long Road to Justice shows that for African-Americans in Massachusetts such assumptions could never be taken for granted.

The Justice George Lewis Ruffin Society, which was founded in 1984 to support minority professionals in the Massachusetts criminal justice system, is the sponsoring organization for the exhibit. The Honorable Julian T. Houston, Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court and Executive Committee member of the Ruffin Society, headed the project. “I felt it was something that needed to be done,” Judge Houston said. It`s important history, and yet few people know about it. In Massachusetts, in our court system especially, history is revered, but it is an incomplete history.”

In addition to an initial 1997 planning grant and a recent major grant from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, the Development Committee, co-chaired by Michael Keating, Esq. and Ruth E. Fitch, Esq., raised over $255,000 in private and institutional contributions to give the public access to these stories. Independent scholar Marilyn Richardson served as curator for the exhibit during the early stages of the project, finding archival sources, choosing cases to highlight, and writing copy for the exhibition panels. The Massachusetts Historical Society is overseeing the final implementation. Antonio Treu of Museum Design Associates in Cambridge designed the exhibition. Edgar Bellefontaine, Librarian Emeritus at the Social Law Library, and Randall Kennedy, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, guided the research.

The exhibit focuses on three themes: Slavery and the Massachusetts Courts; Equal Education and the Massachusetts Courts; and African-Americans on the Bench, at the Bar, and in the Jury Box. Within these categories, selected cases and people will be highlighted, among them Elizabeth Freeman, Quork Walker, and Anthony Burns. In 1781, Elizabeth Freeman engaged Attorney Theodore Sedgwick to bring suit in Stockbridge County Court against her master, Colonel Ashley, for extreme cruelty. Quork Walker`s 1783 case reached the General Court of the Commonwealth and led to the decision that ended slavery in Massachusetts. (Walker has been memorialized in a work of public art installed in the lobby of the Federal Courthouse in Worcester.) In 1854, Anthony Burns escaped from the South, only to be captured in Massachusetts under a provision of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. The Act authorized the seizure and return of runaway slaves to their masters and gave any state magistrate the authority to determine the status of the alleged fugitive slave without a jury trial.

Accompanying the exhibition is a curriculum unit for grades 7–12 developed by Primary Source in Watertown, Massachusetts. Classroom materials include exercises and projects for students before, during, and after visits to the exhibition. By September, a Teacher`s Source Book will be available. It will include text and images from the exhibition, timelines, historical documents, excerpts from speeches, biographical information, ideas for classroom activities, suggestions for further reading, and recommended websites. All aspects of the curriculum conform to the requirements of the Massachusetts Department of Education`s History and Social Science Curriculum Framework.

Long Road to Justice will travel to courthouses throughout the Commonwealth. Why courthouses? Judge Houston explains: “So it would be accessible to a cross section of people who would otherwise never see it—troubled kids, hardened criminals, judges, parole officers, distraught litigants. They`re all there every day.” Sites hosting the exhibition include the newly renovated courthouses in Roxbury and Dorchester, Barnstable County Courthouse in Barnstable, Bristol County Courthouse in New Bedford, the Hall of Justice in Springfield, Berkshire County Courthouse in Pittsfield, and the Fenton Judicial Center in Lawrence. Once the exhibit has toured the state, it will be on view at the new Federal Courthouse at Boston`s Fan Pier. Eventually, a major educational institution will be selected to provide a permanent home for the exhibit. For more information, call the Justice George Lewis Ruffin Society at (617) 373-3327.

©2000 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2000

UPDATE: Mass Humanities in 2015 provided grant funds to expand and update this exhibit for the Fall of 2018.