Beacon Hill Plays Major Role in Long Road to Justice Suffolk U. Exhibit


BOSTON – Beacon Hill, as the home of Boston’s African Americans in the 19th century, figures prominently in the historical exhibit Long Road to Justice: The African American Experience in the Massachusetts Courts, running from January 17 to April 13, 2003 in Suffolk University Law School's Adams Gallery.

The exhibit shows how Massachusetts courts shaped and were shaped by the African American experience. It offers a multimedia journey through historical artifacts, photographs and court records exploring the relationship between the African American community and the Massachusetts justice system from the Colonial period to the present day.

The story of Shadrach Minkins illustrates the role of Beacon Hill neighborhood as a hotbed of abolitionist activity.

In 1851, Minkins, who had escaped from slavery in Virginia, was seized at the coffeehouse where he worked and was taken to the nearby courthouse for a hearing. Four lawyers offered their services, but after a legal setback, a crowd of black and white abolitionists entered the courthouse, seized Minkins and temporarily hid him in a Beacon Hill attic.

From there, Boston black leaders Lewis Hayden and John J. Smith (whose homes are on Beacon Hill’s Black Heritage Trail) and others helped Minkins escape from Massachusetts. He eventually found his way to Canada on the Underground Railroad.

Three years later, Hayden and a Worcester clergyman joined forces to storm a courthouse in an attempt to free escaped slave Anthony Burns, who had been seized on his way home from work by his Virginia owner.

In a fracas at the courthouse, 13 people were arrested, and one Marshall was killed. Burns remained in custody. As federal troops escorted Burns to Boston Harbor for return by ship to Virginia, every street along the route was draped in black, and flags hung upside-down. A huge coffin labeled Liberty was suspended across State Street. It took 2,000 soldiers and Marines at a cost of $40,000 to return Anthony Burns to slavery.

However, within a year, the Rev. Leonard A. Grimes of Boston’s Twelfth Baptist Church had raised enough money to purchase Burns’ freedom, and he returned to Massachusetts a free man.

Burns later studied at Oberlin College in Ohio, and became a minister in Canada.

Long Road to Justice: The African American Experience in the Massachusetts Courts depicts the struggle of African-Americans for racial justice by focusing on three areas: slavery, equal education and African Americans as judges, lawyers, litigants and jurors.

“In Massachusetts, and in our court system especially, history is revered, but it is an incomplete history," said Associate Superior Court Justice Julian T. Houston, Project Chairman. "These African American pioneers of liberty and justice live mainly on the frayed pages of law books, dusty and unopened. Long Road to Justice brings them to life.”

"Suffolk University Law School is very pleased to present this exhibit showing how the Massachusetts legal system helped further the cause of freedom for African Americans who stood up to fight for their rights," said Robert H. Smith, Dean of the Law School.

The modular exhibit with interactive features and an accompanying video highlights prominent cases and figures, all of which come together to demonstrate five key themes:

• The rights that African Americans have established through constant challenge, from the Colonial era forward, benefit all of us, regardless of cultural heritage.
• African Americans have achieved justice through perseverance, courage and personal risk.
• The struggle for racial justice is frequently waged by coalitions of blacks and whites; men and women of both races wrestling with questions of individual choice and collective responsibility.
• The fight for racial justice for African Americans often begins with the willingness of a courageous few to stand against opposition from the larger community.
• The events that took place in the past have tremendous bearing on the present and will influence the future. There is still work to be done to achieve racial justice.

The Justice George Lewis Ruffin Society, founded in 1984 to promote the advancement of minorities in criminal justice, is the exhibition’s principle sponsor.

The exhibition is accompanied by curriculum materials for middle and high school students.

For more information, please contact
Mariellen Norris at 617-573-8450 or
Tony Ferullo at 617-573-8448

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