Ruffin, George Lewis

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George Lewis Ruffin

Lawyer, judge

George Lewis Ruffin graduated Harvard Law School just four years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. As the first African American graduate of Harvard Law School, Ruffin surmounted the same academic challenges as every student. Unlike the average student, however, he also had to face the racism of his classmates. Ruffin became the first African American on the Boston city council and the first African American elected to the Massachusetts legislature. He also served as a municipal judge in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Ruffin was born in Richmond, Virginia, on December 16, 1834. He was the eldest of eight children of free blacks who had received some education. Ruffin's parents abandoned their small property in Richmond and moved their family to Boston in 1853, soon after the state of Virginia passed a law prohibiting blacks from learning to read. Ruffin, who was about nineteen years old at the time, entered public schools along with his brothers and sisters. He excelled in school and became active with the Republican Party, beginning a lifelong commitment to politics, social activism, and the judicial system.

Boycotts Dred Scott

When he graduated in 1858, Ruffin married Josephine St. Pierre, an African American woman from a prominent Boston family. Her father was an activist who objected to segregated schools. She was sixteen when she and Ruffin married, and the couple would have five children, but Josephine Ruffin was just as active as her husband in the fight for justice and equality. During the Civil War, the couple helped recruit soldiers for the Union army. Ruffin attempted to enlist himself in the 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiment but was unable to because he was nearsighted. Soon after they wed, the Ruffins moved to Liverpool, England, to protest the U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision of 1857, which essentially confirmed the legality of slavery. When they returned to Boston six months later, Ruffin worked as a barber, an occupation that left his mind restless.

When he was not cutting hair, Ruffin studied law with partners of a Boston law firm. In 1868, Ruffin enrolled in Harvard University's law school. It did not take long for him to feel the prejudice of his classmates. According to the New Crisis, at his first meeting of the student assembly, a group of students proposed a resolution that "every member of the school is by right a member of the assembly, except for colored students." Ruffin held his own with the group, however, and after a spirited debate convinced them to rescind the resolution. He was not at Harvard very long; Ruffin completed the three-year program in one year.

Ruffin was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in September 1869. He then joined the law firm of Harvey Jewell, where he specialized in criminal law and represented both African American and white clients. He was elected to the Boston city council and ran for the state legislature and won seats in 1869 and 1870.

Ruffin's reputation increased with his involvement with the state legislature. He moved in abolitionist circles and became recognized for his leadership in organizations that sought to advance the causes of African Americans. He was close to several leading abolitionists of the era.

Makes Memorable Speech to Republicans

Ruffin was a delegate to the Massachusetts Republican convention in 1871. There, he made a memorable nomination speech for gubernatorial candidate and former Union General Benjamin F. Butler. Butler lost his bid for governor that year but was elected to the statehouse in 1882. The next year, Butler appointed Ruffin the first black judge in Massachusetts, in the Charlestown municipal court. It would be seventy-five years before another African American became a judge in Massachusetts. The same year Ruffin was appointed judge, he was named to the position of consul resident in Boston for the Dominican Republic.

By most accounts, Ruffin donated so much of his income to social causes and charities that he died poor. He died November 20, 1886, of Bright's disease after several weeks of illness. Ruffin's legacy was honored in 1984, the year the Justice George Lewis Ruffin Society was founded. The group studies and promotes the advancement of minorities in criminal justice professions and within the Massachusetts criminal justice system. The society is affiliated with the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Massachusetts and works with the college in planning its criminal justice classes and programs. The society also holds an annual criminal justice meeting and maintains the Ruffin Fellows program, which sponsors outstanding minority students pursuing a graduate degree from Northeastern's criminal justice program.


Born in Richmond, Virginia on December 16
Moves with parents to Boston; enters public schools
Marries Josephine St. Pierre
Moves to Liverpool, England, to protest the U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision
Enrolls in Harvard University Law School
Completes three-year law school program in one year
Admitted to the bar of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts; joins the law firm of Harvey Jewell
Wins seat on Massachusetts Stage Legislature
Acts as delegate to the Massachusetts Republican convention
Appointed the first black judge in Massachusetts and consul resident in Boston for the Dominican Republic
Dies November 20
Justice George Lewis Ruffin Society is founded



Brown, C. Stone. "Harvard Law School Celebrates a Rich Tradition of Black History." New Crisis, 108 (March-April 2001): 44-47.


"George Lewis Ruffin." Discover Richmond.;=1031780316820&path=%21news%21blackhistory&s=1058750353270 (Accessed 14 March 2006).

"George Lewis Ruffin Society." Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice. (Accessed 14 March 2006).

                                    Brenna Sanchez