Ph.D. Octopus

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Heartwarming multicultural story of the day.

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Meet Ellis Gray Loring. As the name might suggest, Loring was a Boston Wasp. In fact he hit about every 19th century Boston Brahmin stereotype: educated at Harvard, friend of Emerson, and successful Massachusetts lawyer. Loring was also an early abolitionist, though he might have been something of a moderate, as he apparently supported “gradual” emancipation, rather than immediate Emancipation, as most abolitionists did.

In the early 1840s, though, Loring hired a 13 year black child named Robert Morris as an assistant. This was fairly common among paternalistic Boston abolitionists. Morris was something like a paralegal and secretary. But Morris learned quickly, and by 1847 he applied for, and was accepted to, the Massachusetts Bar. Morris thus became one of the first black men in the country (and the first in Massachusetts) to be admitted as a practicing attorney.

Throughout the 1850s, Morris was an active abolitionist. In 1851, a fugitive slave named Shadrach Minkins was captured by Boston authorities and threatened to be sent back into slavery. Boston blacks organized a rescue, with activist Lewis Hayden and about 20 black Bostonians simply busting into the courthouse and grabbing Minkins. Morris likely acted as the “inside man” in the courtroom.

Morris was, oddly, known as the “Irish Lawyer” since he regularly represented the Irish poor in his practice. Morris went as far as to convert to Catholicism, as that was the religion of almost all of his clients. Perhaps for that reason, Morris decided to adopt a parishioner at his church- a young Irish immigrant named Patrick Collins- as an office boy, just as Loring had once hired him.

Collins had recently come over from Ireland, and been driven from school by protestant schoolmates during the anti-immigrant hysteria of the 1850s. His time with Morris gave him a rudimentary knowledge of the law but he still decided to become a mechanic. By 1862 he was a furniture maker. However, in 1863, his eyes opened to the world by his time in Morris’ shop, he helped to form the Upholsters Union of Boston and after rising as a leader in Boston labor politics, got involved in Irish nationalist politics. Later he became a leader in Democratic city politics. And in 1901, about 60 years after Loring had first introduced Morris to the law, Patrick Collins became the first native-born Irishman ever elected Mayor of Boston.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

February 7, 2010 at 20:02

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