Robert Morris: A Man of “Energy and Iron Will”

Robert Morris (1823 – 1882) was one of the first African-American attorneys in the United States. The Burns Library owns books from his personal library.

Robert Morris (1823 – 1882) was one of the first African-American attorneys in the United States. The Burns Library owns books from his personal library.

The John J. Burns Library holds books from the personal library of the eminent nineteenth century Boston lawyer, Robert Morris (1823-1882). The majority of the Morris Library has been housed in the Bostonia Collection, a group of  materials aimed at preserving Boston and Massachusetts history.  I was recently charged with isolating the Morris books from the larger collection in order to survey their physical condition.

Admittedly, before I started pulling the books I did not know who Robert Morris was. I gradually began to piece together an idea of the man based on the books I pulled from the shelves. He was a man obviously interested in justice, social and legal. This was made evident by the anti-slavery works that pervade the collection. The library holds the works of well-known abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison. Names like Emerson, Coleridge, and Martineau also accent the collection.

Morris evidently had an interest in 18th century political history too. His copy of Statesmen Who Flourished in the Time of George III by Henry Brougham, shows the wear of repeated handling. The same can be said for an 1845 edition of The Federalist, authored by founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Beyond topics of national importance, Robert Morris was interested in local history too, as evidenced by several books on Boston and Essex County history.

Cover of <a href="http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&amp;vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,hathitrustMIU01-008637964"><i>Memoir of Nathaniel Bowditch</i></a> by Henry I. Bowditch, QB 36 .B7 B5 1841 Boston Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Cover of Memoir of Nathaniel Bowditch by Henry I. Bowditch, QB 36 .B7 B5 1841 Boston Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Robert Morris was born in Salem, Massachusetts to Yorkshire Morris, a waiter for wealthy clientele, and his wife, Mercy Thomas. Accompanying his father to work, Robert was introduced to many of Boston’s well-known lawyers and politicians. One such lawyer, Ellis Gray Loring, a founding member of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, offered to assist Morris in his education. After cultivating an interest in law, Morris became the first African-American man admitted to the Massachusetts Bar, and only the second black lawyer in the United States. Foremost, Morris pledged himself to defending the African-American community. In 1850, Morris teamed with orator and statesman, Charles Sumner, in the case of Roberts v. City of Boston. In the case, Morris represented five year old Sarah Roberts, whose father had been denied the right to enroll her in an all-white school in Boston. Roberts had received her education from a poorly funded, exclusively African-American school distant from where she lived in the City. Morris argued the psychological impacts of attending an underfunded school, as well as the larger societal implications of segregating black and white students. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found in favor of the defendants, the City of Boston, affirming the principle of “separate but equal,” which was later cited in the 1896 United States Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The case galvanized Morris’ position as a defender of black rights within Boston.

The year 1850 also saw the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which Morris strongly and vocally opposed. The federal law permitted agents to seize escaped slaves that were living in “free states” and return them to their owners. The Act presumed the cooperation of state law enforcement.  In 1851, as an escaped slave named Shadrach Minkins faced a court-ordered return to Virginia, Morris helped organize a diversion at the court house, allowing Shadrach to escape, eventually settling in Canada. Morris was subsequently arrested for his involvement in the plan, but was later acquitted of the charges due to a dearth of evidence.

In addition to his eventful career as a Boston lawyer, Morris was also appointed a magistrate in the Essex County, Massachusetts court system, and led an unsuccessful campaign to become mayor of the City of Chelsea, Massachusetts in the 1860s.

Robert Morris died on December 12, 1882 of complications from heart disease. He was 59 years old. On December 17, the Boston Globe printed a memorial from the Suffolk Bar Association, of which Morris had been a member. In addition to detailing his many judicial and legal successes, the group eulogized “the loss of a man of character, integrity, and reliability, an upright and conscientious lawyer, faithful in the discharge of his duty to his clients and in his bearing mindful of his obligation to the court and his fellow members of the bar.” He was a lawyer, but also a civil rights activist, “a man who always had the interests of his race at heart.”

Despite their varying condition, subject matter, and authorship, the books had one thing in common: the signature of their former owner, neatly inscribed on the back of the front cover, usually with the year of purchase or gift.

Despite their varying condition, subject matter, and authorship, the books had one thing in common: the signature of their former owner, neatly inscribed on the back of the front cover, usually with the year of purchase or gift.

In total, I pulled 75 of Morris’ books from the stacks in Burns Library. Despite their varying condition, subject matter, and authorship, the books had one thing in common: the signature of their former owner, neatly inscribed on the back of the front cover, usually with the year of purchase or gift. Gathered together again, it is possible to see how the library expanded from the 1850s to the 1870s. I can only surmise that many of the books in the collection provided sources of legal expertise, statecraft, or maybe just restful escape to their owner, who possessed the “energy and Iron Will to stem the current of popular prejudice.”

If you’d like to view all the catalog records for the Robert Morris books, then use the online library catalog to do a Holmes Advanced Search for local collection name “Morris.”  If you have further questions, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

James Heffernan author shotJames Heffernan, Burns Library Conservation Assistant & BC ’15

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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One Response to Robert Morris: A Man of “Energy and Iron Will”

  1. Molly Spore-Alhadef says:

    Dear James Heffernan,
    I read this with great interest as I have learned in my research on Local History of Redwood City, Calif., of another rather dramatic returned slave story that started in Boston. I assume that Fort Devens still exists in Massachusetts. It is named for Charles Devens (or Devins) who was born in 1820 and is a graduate of Harvard College. By the 1850s he was the U.S. Marshall for Massachusetts, and was charged with returning an escaped slave to his owner in the deep South. During the long journey, Devens was very impressed by the man, and his story, and tried to buy the slave from his master. He was refused, and when the Civil War broke out a few years later, He enlisted as an officer in the U.S. Army., at the age of 40. He served as a part of Gen Philip Sheridan’s staff in the extended Shenandoah campaign. His secretary (in an age when good penmanship was critical) was a pharmacist named Will Frisbee , who settled in RC after the War. Gen Devens was appointed Postmaster in the Grant Administration, and went to the South, tracked down the slave he had returned there, and got him a job with the Postal Service handling horses. Devens was also one of the founders of the Grand Army of the Republic, which was the former Union Army members, and served as one of it’s first Commandants, The GAR war a major factor in every presidential election for the rest of the 19th century. I have done research on Will Frisbee who was a political figure here, and who is buried in Union Cemetery in RC..
    Good luck to you as you graduate, fifty years after I did.. I loved working in Bapst Library, I was assistant to Fr. Connolly, the Director of Libraries as my first professional job, and worked in the Thompson Room, right under the portrait of Coventry Patmore. I hope you enjoy working in Libraries, I am still working, over 48 years after I started my career at BC.

    Best wishes, Molly Spore-Alhadef, Class of 1965

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