NYLS’s Impact Center for Public Interest Law has published a series of tributes to 18th- and 19th-Century civil rights pioneers in honor of Black History Month.
These accounts “demonstrate the power of human agency to make change, even under oppressive circumstances, and inform our continued efforts to challenge racial injustice,” the Center’s leaders noted.
Mumbet and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts
Despite the call for liberty in the Declaration of Independence and its statement that “all men are created equal,” the institution of slavery was pervasive in the colonies, and not just in the South. By 1790, there were as many as 40,000 enslaved people in the North. The persistence of slavery in the North, however, had begun to change nearly a decade earlier, due in no small part to the efforts of Mumbet, a 39-year-old enslaved woman who lived in bondage with her sister in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Read more.
Taking Up Arms Against Their Oppressors: Charles Deslondes, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner
After the successful 1804 uprising by self-liberated people in Saint-Domingue against French colonial rule, enslaved people in the United States led heroic uprisings in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Virginia. Charles Deslondes, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner sacrificed their lives on behalf of other enslaved people. Their brave actions contributed to the cause of abolitionism that set the United States on its course toward the Civil War. The uprisings also demonstrated deeply entrenched racism in the legal system, which oppressors used to punish those who had sought freedom, often by setting up secretive tribunals. Read more.
Roberts v. Boston: Challenging School Desegregation in Boston
In 1848, a brave 4-year-old girl and her civil rights activist father teamed up with the second Black lawyer in the United States and a famous abolitionist lawyer to challenge school segregation in Boston. Although Sarah and Benjamin Roberts lost their case, their arguments led to legislation prohibiting school segregation in Massachusetts and laid the groundwork for the decision in Brown v. Board of Education that segregating schools by race violated the Equal Protection Clause. Read more.
Ida B. Wells Challenges Segregated Railroad Cars in Tennessee
From the late 18th to the early 19th Century, southern states enacted Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise Black Americans and remove the political and economic gains they made following the Civil War. Despite the extreme oppression of these laws, Black Americans risked their lives and safety to oppose the laws and stepped forward as leaders in attempting to overturn them. One such leader was Ida B. Wells, a 20-year old school teacher from Memphis, Tennessee, who became a prominent activist. Read more.
In closing, the series invoked the late U.S. Representative John Lewis’s directive: “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something.”
Those who contributed to the tributes include NYLS students John Paul Dominguez 3L Evening, Katerina Pluhacek Garcia 3L Evening, Rachel Kull 3L, and Francesca Rogo 3L; Impact Center Director and Professor Richard D. Marsico; and Law and Justice Program Coordinator/Lewis Steel Racial Justice Fellow Jarienn James ’17. Learn more about the Impact Center’s institutes and projects.