Participation & the Massachusetts Courts

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 participated only as litigants—plaintiffs or defendants in a legal action—or as witnesses. Black attorneys were admitted to the bar, and African Americans were allowed to serve as jurors in the middle part of the 19th century. The first Massachusetts African American judge, George Lewis Ruffin, was appointed in 1883.

Further expansion of the black role in the legal system was disappointingly slow. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that black attorneys began to be hired in significant numbers in the private and public sectors, and African Americans gained appointments at all levels of the state and federal courts.

African American

Learn about trailblazing lawyers from the 1800s to today.

African American

Discover respected justices who have served in the courts.

Jury Duty: A Citizen’s Right

Jury duty, like voting, is a hallmark of American citizenship. Before the Civil War, African Americans were excluded from jury service. As a result, the fate of black litigants was routinely left to exclusively white juries in both civil and criminal jury trials. Not until 1860 were the first African Americans seated on a Massachusetts jury.

“The right to be tried by a jury drawn fairly from a representative cross section of the community is critical….” —Justice Paul J. Liacos, 1979