As Black History Month draws to a close, I wanted to take a moment to spotlight George Lewis Ruffin (1834-1886), Harvard Law School’s first black graduate. Ruffin was one of eight children born to free parents George W. (1800-1863) and Nancy Lewis Ruffin (1816-1874) in Richmond, Virginia. Committed to their children’s education, Ruffin’s parents hired a tutor to teach them English literature, Latin, and the classics. Knowing that Virginia was not an environment where their children could excel academically (the Virginia legislature had already prohibited blacks from learning to read), George’s mother moved her children to Boston in 1853 with the hopes of giving them a better education. George attended and graduated from the Boston Public Schools and in 1858 he married Josephine St. Pierre (1842-1924). That same year, in response to the racism of the time, George and Josephine moved to Liverpool, England
Portrait of George Lewis Ruffin by Melvin Robbins, Harvard Law School Library, VIA Record ID: olvwork599614
where they stayed for approximately six months. Upon their return to Boston, George, like his father before him, made a living as a barber. In the 1860s, Ruffin began to make his mark as an activist. Along with advocating for black suffrage, he participated in the 1864 National Negro Convention, as well as the 1865 National Negro Convention in Boston. It was around this time that Ruffin began reading law at the Boston firm of Jewell and Gaston. In 1868, Ruffin was accepted to Harvard Law School and in 1869 earned his LL.B., making him the Law School’s first black graduate.
Ruffin established a successful law practice and became politically active: he was elected in 1869 and 1870 to the state legislature and in 1876 he became the first African American elected to the Boston Common Council. In 1883 Governor Benjamin Butler appointed him judge to the Charlestown, Massachusetts Municipal Court, making Ruffin the first African American to hold such a position in Massachusetts.
George Lewis Ruffin truly was a man of “firsts.”
For additional resources on Ruffin see:
Long Road to Justice: The African American Experience in the Massachusetts Courts
Heslip-Ruffin Family Papers,1822-1946 at the Amistad Research Center
Ruffin Family Papers, 1832-1936 at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University
Harvard Law School catalog, 1868-69
American National Biography Online
African American Biographical Database
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin Profile, Mount Auburn Cemetery
Davis, William T. Bench and Bar of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, volume 1. Boston History Company, 1895.
Styles, Fitzhugh Lee. Negroes and the law in the race’s battle for liberty, equality and justice under the Constitution of the United States. Christopher Publishing House: Boston, 1937.
Simmons, William J. and Henry McNeal Turner. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. Cleveland, Ohio: G.M. Rewell & Co., 1887.