Robert Morris was born in Salem, Massachusetts on June 8, 1823, one of 11 children born to Yorkshire and Mercy Thomas Morris. When Morris was just 13 years old, the famous Boston abolitionist lawyer Ellis Gray Loring found Morris waiting on tables at the Salem home of lawyer John C. King on Essex Street, not far from the current Superior Courthouse. Loring invited Morris to live in Loring’s Boston home and become an intern in his Boston law office, a shockingly progressive move at a time when there had never been a single black lawyer anywhere in America. To get to Boston, Morris had to ride outside on the back ledge of a stagecoach on a frigid December day, because the law prohibited blacks from riding in public transportation with whites.
Morris studied with Loring, one of the leading lawyers in the country, and he passed the Massachusetts bar at age 25 on February 2, 1847. He was the second black man in the country to be sworn in to a bar (after Macon Allen in May, 1845) and the first to practice actively in Massachusetts.
At a time when the United States Constitution required the return of runaway slaves (Article IV, §2) and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was still in force, Morris began a remarkable legal career. With only one year of experience, he brought suit against the City of Boston attempting to force integration of the Boston elementary schools. When the case reached the Supreme Judicial Court in 1849, he became the first African-American to argue before an appellate court in the country. Roberts v. City of Boston. He was also the first to try a civil case in America, in 1847, and the first to establish a successful practice in the nation. He was one of the Commonwealth’s leading abolitionists, and was instrumental in freeing Shadrack Minkins from the clutches of a slave catcher, for which he faced a trial for treason (He was defended successfully by Richard Henry Dana).
Throughout all of this, he was known as a learned, tough but courteous advocate, embodying the ABOTA principles over a century before the American Board of Trial Advocates was formed.
On the eve his very first civil trial in 1847, Morris went to meet opposing counsel, the noted John C. Park, to discuss pretrial issues. Instead of even offering him a chair, Park berated Morris and refused to discuss the case. Morris returned to his State Street office and, and he later wrote, “I thought about the mighty odds against me …and I cried”.
Rather than quit, Morris became even more determined: “Then it was” wrote Morris, “that I made a vow that I have never broken. It was this: that I would prove myself to be a man and a gentleman, and succeed in the practice of law, or I would die.”
It is this spirit that Mass ABOTA celebrates with the creation of the Robert Morris Sr. Award. It is awarded in recognition of unusual courage and uncommon courtesy in civil litigation.
2018 – Melvin B. Miller
2017 – Walter Prince
2015 – Neil Sugarman
2013 – Leo V. Boyle