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An exhibit chronicling the lives of African Americans who helped shape Massachusetts’ court system or fought for their rights there is on display at the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse in Boston. More than 100 people attended the Sept. 28 opening of “The Long Road to Justice: The African American Experience in the Massachusetts’ Courts,” sponsored by the Justice George Lewis Ruffin Society. The exhibit features panels displaying photos of African Americans and text of their stories, as well as a book containing biographies and a video. “I think we felt that this was a very important history for people to know about, and for the most part, people around the state — black and white — were completely unaware of this history,” said Superior Court Judge Julian T. Houston, founder of the Justice George Lewis Ruffin Society and exhibit project chairman. Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, a former antiapartheid activist in South Africa, told the gathering, “We, all of us, have much to learn from our history, our painful history.” Some of the people featured in the exhibit include Ruffin, who became the first African-American judge appointed in Massachusetts. Also highlighted are slaves Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker, who successfully sued for their freedom. ACTIVE ROLE The 15-minute video features interviews with African-American legal professionals who share their experiences of working in the state’s courts. “It’s absolutely essential to understand that African Americans had an active role,” said Donald Yacovone, associate editor of publications at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Yacovone, who is a historic counselor for the project, said it’s important for people to learn that African Americans weren’t just victims in the court, but were active in shaping the Massachusetts court system. He called their history in the court system a “legacy of oppression … and a legacy of success.” The struggle for success of African Americans was difficult, Houston said, noting that after Ruffin became a judge in 1883 there were no other full-time black judges for 75 years. “And that is a shameful record,” he added. The exhibit will remain at the courthouse until late November and then be moved to other courts throughout Massachusetts. The Justice George Lewis Ruffin Society chose to display the exhibit in state courthouses because of the public’s access to those buildings. Houston also said the society is trying to reach out to students in Massachusetts through an educational packet that serves as a supplement to the exhibit. “I believe strongly in the power of education to encourage constructive action,” said Houston.

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