150 Years of Civil Rights Activism

The Massachusetts "Constitution of Government...sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal.... This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution."          -- Massachusetts Chief Justice William Cushing, 1783

Recognizing their rights in the key phrase of the newly adopted Massachusetts Constitution, “all men are born free and equal,” Quok Walker and Elizabeth "Mum Bet" Freeman petitioned for their freedom from slavery. Attorney General Robert Treat Paine (1731-1814), a signer of the Declaration of Independence who had helped John Adams draft the Massachusetts Constitution, successfully represented Quok Walker in the case Commonwealth vs. Jennison. In this landmark case, Chief Justice William Cushing abolished slavery in Massachusetts leading the way for the other Northern States.

Generations later, a descendant of both of these early freedom fighters prominently displayed a portrait of William Cushing and a copy of the Declaration of Independence in the Great Hall of his country house in Waltham, Stonehurst. During his coming of age, Stonehurst's Robert Treat Paine (1835-1910) had witnessed Civil War, Reconstruction, and gross racial inequities that continued in every state. As a mature lawyer, millionaire and philanthropist, he was in a good position to do something about it and focused on advancing the education of African Americans in the segregated South. Paine backed historically black colleges like Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes and also sponsored individual students in their studies and early careers.

Selected letters from these students—Edward Sinkler, J. Walter White, Albert Jackson, Rutherford B. H. Smith, John E. Brown and John James Goldwin—survive in Paine's papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. These children of slaves express their thanks, their hopes and fears, and their successes and struggles in paving a way forward for all people.  

John Brown, who entered Tuskegee at age 24 with only 9 months of intermittent schooling behind him wrote how “I often lie down at night and try to think how I am to manage to get through.” 17-year-old Edward Sinkler, hoped “I will be able to write a letter that will interest you in reading it the next time I write to you if I live and nothing happens.”

A young Hampton graduate, J. Walter White wrote a particularly moving six-page letter from his teaching position in Pleasant Valley, Georgia where he spent his days “teaching in school, teaching in Sabbath School, reading for unlearned adults, seeing after the sick and needy, conducting prayer meetings, advising heads of families on the best means of household economy to the best of my knowledge, &c&c.” He also became deeply involved in a political campaign for reasons he described in this letter from 1889.

“Here is the condensed state of affairs here. First, most of them seem to hate us because we are free. They do not want us to have any education, for fear that they will be unable to cheat us or to take an unfair advantage of us.... Why even some of their leaders say that they are not in favor of being taxed to pay for negro schooling....

"Sir, in many places all through the South they will keep the negro in a condition of slavery.... Their object is to keep as many of them ignorant and poor and dependent in order that they may use him as a tool, not a man....  But the half of it has not been told.”

Paine’s autobiographical essay omits any mention of his support for these African American students, but their schools were reported to be the chief interest of his daughter Ethel. Described late in life as a “fiercely radical-progressive,” Ethel taught at St. Andrews Mission in Boston and was active in the Hampton Institute and the Penn School, St. Helena, South Carolina. At St. Helena, she must have met Howard Kester, a white preacher, organizer and civil rights activist, who was a principal at the school in the 1940s.

In 1957, Kester organized a three-day conference at which young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech later published as “At the Threshold of Integration.” According to Kester, Ethel Paine and the Robert Treat Paine Association were the only ones bold enough to fund this early civil rights conference in 1957.

“The foundations thought it too early for such a conference as I had in mind. All of the foundations backed away, the Rockefeller Brothers, Ford, because they were really scared of it, you know.... The Paine Foundation in Boston and Ethel Paine Moors...were the only ones that made the Conference possible.”

From the first anti-slavery law in America, to Reconstruction after the Civil War, to the Civil Rights Movement, the Paine family remained engaged and involved in major efforts to improve social justice and human rights in this nation. 




This 1904 photograph of Hampton Institute students is from an album assembled by Ethel Paine, now in the archives of the Robert Treat Paine Historical Trust at Stonehurst.

For the story of Elizabeth Mum Bett Freeman and Quok Walker, see http://www.massmoments.org/moment.cfm?mid=244  The original documents are at the Massachusettts Historical Society.  http://www.masshist.org/endofslavery/index.php?id=54
Thomas M. Paine shared information on the role of Attorney General Robert Treat Paine (1731-1814) in this landmark case, which will be published in his forthcoming book, American Pluck.

The portrait of William Cushing at Stonehurst is an 1887 copy by Hardy after an original by Sharpless. The portrait was apparently commissioned by Paine for the Great Hall of Stonehurst just after its construction. An 1811 copy of the Declaration of Independence signed by Paine's namesake is also prominently displayed in the Great Hall.

For the Hampton Institute, see http://www.hamptonu.edu/about/history.cfm

The Hampton and Tuskegee student letters cited are John E. Brown to RTP, Apr 23, 1886; Edward Sinkler to RTP, Feb 10, 1886; J. Walker White to RTP, Nov. 20, 1889, the Robert Treat Paine Papers at Massachusetts Historical Society (Call No. Ms. N-642).

For biographies on RT and Ethel Paine, see Sarah Cushing Paine. Paine Ancestry: The Family of Robert Treat Paine, Signer of the Declaration of Independence. Boston, 1912. For Ethel Paine, see Elisabeth Sifton. The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War. New York, 2003.

Early records of the Robert Treat Paine Association, founded by Robert Treat and Lydia Lyman Paine, are in the archives at Stonehurst.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech was republished as “At the Threshold of Integration,” Economic Justice 25 (June-July 1957)
The Interview with Howard Kester, August 25, 1974. Interview B-0007-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (34007) is available on-line.