Celebrate Black History Month by visiting “Long Road to Justice” exhibit

Issue February 2010 By Valerie A. Yarashus

Black History Month began as Negro History Week, the second week in February, in 1962. The week was selected because the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass occurred during that time frame, and both of these individuals clearly had a profound effect on the lives of African-American people. Almost 50 years later, we still have a long way to go to educate ourselves and our children about the importance of black history in our country.

As Gov. Deval Patrick stated during his recent speech at a Massachusetts Bar Foundation dinner commemorating its 45th anniversary, we as lawyers know that making justice happen every day is part of our job description. We should also be particularly interested in the African-American experience in the courts in Massachusetts over the last 300 years. It seems to me that this gets to the very core of what justice is about - by understanding this historic struggle, we come to understand more of the nature of justice, both in historic times as well as our own time.

Several weeks ago, the MBA was delighted to co-sponsor a reception celebrating the re-opening of the "Long Road to Justice" exhibit in the Edward Brooke Courthouse in Boston. If you haven't seen it yet, Black History Month is a perfect time to go. This museum-quality exhibit is free and open to the public, right in the atrium of the courthouse. The exhibit documents the experience for African-Americans in both the civil and criminal justice system in Massachusetts from the time of slavery to the present. It is sponsored by the Ruffin Society and the result of significant hard work and visionary thinking by the Hon. Julian T. Houston (ret.) and others.

At the exhibit, you will learn how Massachusetts courts dealt with the issue of whether freed slaves could serve as jurors, testify as witnesses or be litigants themselves. You will learn about groundbreaking cases in Massachusetts that dealt with the rights of African-Americans. You will learn about the first, trailblazing black lawyers and judges in our commonwealth.

As Edward Said, a literary scholar and activist, wrote in another context:

"Even if one is not [excluded from the justice system], it is still possible to think as one [who has been], to imagine and investigate in spite of barriers, and always to move … towards the margins, where you see things that are usually lost on minds that have never traveled beyond the conventional and comfortable."

It is exhibits like the "Long Road to Justice" that help those of us living now, in these times, to imagine and investigate these life-changing challenges.

There is something about these brave people's struggle for justice in the face of such overwhelming circumstances that is at the heart of the human experience. If we commit to learning more about this ongoing struggle for justice and equality during Black History Month, it will be a month well spent. In my view, this is as important as it gets.