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Clement Garnett Morgan: From slavery to Harvard

Anthony W. Neal
Anthony W. Neal is a graduate of Brown University and University of Texas School of Law and has written for the Bay State Banner since 2012.
Clement Garnett Morgan: From slavery to Harvard

Clement Garnett Morgan was born to slave parents in Stafford County, Va., in January  1859. After he and his parents were freed on Jan. 1, 1863, the effective date of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, they moved to Washington, D.C., where he attended the racially segregated M Street High School and learned the barber’s trade.

After completing high school, he traveled to St. Louis and for four years taught in an all-black school in that city. But neither Washington, D.C. nor St. Louis offered the quality of education Morgan desired. Determined to be his best, and an example for young black men, he set out for Boston between 1883 and 1884.

He attended the prestigious Boys Latin School for two years and graduated with honors in 1886, earning the Franklin Medal and winning the 1st and 3rd Lawrence Prizes for declamation and reading. During his last year at that school, he held the post of adjutant in its battalion.

Morgan was the first African American to obtain degrees from both Harvard’s college and its law school. By working as a barber and obtaining scholarships, he was able to pay for his education. He won the Boylston Prize for oratory in May 1889.

Later that same year, Boston Globe sources described him as “a bright fellow of pleasing address, easy and interesting in conversation, a diligent student” and an “eloquent speaker.” Indeed, on June 20, 1890 he became the first African American to deliver Harvard’s senior class oration — a speech that was received favorably by the local print media. 

Morgan was admitted to the Suffolk bar on Aug. 8, 1893. At first, he did not believe he was a strong enough a candidate for political office and had opposed having his name brought before the public for elective office of any kind. But his friends eventually convinced him to run for councilman.     

Cambridge residents, most of them white, cast 1,290 votes in his favor, electing him to the city’s Common Council from Ward 2 in December 1894. He served two one-year terms.

Morgan became the first African American to be elected to the Cambridge Board of Aldermen in December 1896, and the first black alderman elected in any city north of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi.

On Jan. 21, 1897, shortly after his inauguration, a reception and banquet was held in his honor at Odd Fellows Hall in Cambridgeport. Attended by 175 prominent business and political figures from Boston, Cambridge and vicinity, the event was a tribute to Morgan’s “faithfulness and integrity” in “his efforts to advance the people of his race.”

At the reception, he told his guests that the great secret of success is to be ready when opportunity presents itself. He served on the Cambridge Board of Aldermen in 1897 and 1898.

On the night of July 8, 1890, a large gathering of African Americans met at the Charles St. A.M.E. Church to hear him speak. They listened enthusiastically as he delivered an address calling for race unity. Morgan said, “Be true to yourselves” and “each other,” for “we cannot advance a single inch without this.”

Emanating race pride, he declared, “I love the Negro race and am not ashamed of Negro blood” and “if any of you are ashamed of your blood it is cowardice.” Loud applause followed. He told those present “to educate thoroughly.”

“We must accumulate and we must demand an open field and fair play,” he said. “Be united, be proud of your blood, and condemn anyone who speaks spitefully against it,” he added.

Morgan lived on Columbia Street in Cambridge until 1897, when he moved to 265 Prospect St. But he still maintained his law practice at 39 Court St. in Boston.

Eighty-five African Americans, mostly Southerners, are known to have been lynched in 1902. In August of that year Clement Morgan and his good friend Butler R. Wilson, intent on protecting a black man from the South’s dreaded lynch law, represented Monroe Rogers. He was a fugitive wanted in Durham County, N.C., on the charge of arson — a crime punishable by death.

 “We cannot afford in these days to let every colored man be sent back south because someone down there says he’s guilty of some crime,” Morgan said at the time. “If this bright young fellow, whom I don’t believe to be guilty of the crime of arson, is allowed to go back to North Carolina without a vigorous protest, it will not be long before Southern officers, upon every little provocation, will be running up north here, seeking colored men under some excuse or other” and making “the North a field of search similar to the days of the fugitive slave law.”

When the Guardian newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter and his associate Granville Martin were arrested and charged with disturbing a public meeting at the Columbus Ave. A.M.E. Zion Church on July 30, 1903, at which black leader Booker T. Washington was the guest speaker, Morgan, who had attended that meeting, defended them. He presented an impassioned argument to Judge Bennett of the Boston Municipal Court, asking him to take into consideration the “intense feeling among colored people” over Washington’s policy of accommodation.

“The lines are closely drawn” he said, and Trotter had a right to ask questions of Washington, as that had been the custom among black people. Morgan denied that Trotter and Martin had attended the meeting to break it up, and he told the court that the case had attracted great attention throughout the country, and that “the colored race” was “really before the bar at this time.”  Judge Bennett, however, found Trotter and Martin guilty as charged and sentenced them to 30 days in jail.

In 1903, black parents in the western Massachusetts town of Sheffield refused to send their children to the segregated Plain School. Morgan was there to file a complaint on their behalf, alleging unjust discrimination. He was, in fact, chiefly responsible for closing the school.

How would he have dealt with the problem of crime? In 1904 he said, “The remedy for crime is education, and more of it, together with just laws.”

Along with Trotter, Morgan was one of the 29 founding members of the Niagara Movement, a national organization formed at a conference of black men held at the Fort Erie Hotel in Fort Erie, Ontario. Scheduled from July 11-14, 1905 by his friend and Harvard classmate W. E. B. Du Bois, the conference published a “Declaration of Principles,” advising African Americans to “protest emphatically and continually” against, among other things, the curtailment of their voting rights, civil rights, and the denial of their “equal opportunities in economic life.”

The conference participants’ demands were many and included “upright judges in courts, juries selected without discrimination on account of color … the same measure of punishment and the same efforts at reformation for blacks as for white offenders … equal treatment in places of public entertainment,” free compulsory “common school education” for “all American children,” and the elimination of the South’s “dehumanizing convict-lease system.”

The Niagara Movement was the forerunner of the NAACP, with which Morgan also became closely associated.

At St. Paul’s Baptist Church on the corner of Camden and Tremont streets, Morgan gave the principal address on Nov. 23, 1905 to honor the memory of William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, President Abraham Lincoln, and other men and women “who sacrificed other aims for the freedom of the slaves.”

Ever the political activist, at the Republican state convention on Oct. 4, 1919, held at the Tremont Temple, Clement Morgan and two other delegates urged planks calling for the enforcement of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution “so that colored people of the country may be secure in their rights.”

Clement Morgan died at the Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital in Cambridge on June 1, 1929.