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Remembering James H. Wolff

Memorial Day Weekend, 2015:– I wish to honor the memory of a naval veteran who survived the Civil War.  Before you sigh and roll your eyes, please note that — my foreign birth notwithstanding — I do understand the difference between Veterans Day, when we celebrate all who served, and Memorial Day, when we commemorate those who fell. But in view of the fact that the man I am honoring enlisted at well below the minimum recruitment age, I suspect that my bending the rules would have met with his approval.


This year marks the 150th anniversary of the decommissioning of USS Minnesota and of the Massachusetts Legislature enacting “An Act Forbidding Unjust Discrimination on Account of Color or Race,” which served as a model for the first federal Civil Rights Act. There is a connection between the warship and the statute, and the connection’s name was James H. Wolff.

James H. Wolff, Esq.

James H. Wolff, Esq.

Wolff was just 14 when he enlisted in the US Navy at the outbreak of the Civil War. Born to free parents in New Hampshire, he must have known that by volunteering to fight the Slave Power he was at risk of losing both his liberty and his life. Live free or die were the conditions of his daily life, not simply a motto.

He was aboard Minnesota when she bombarded the Confederates into surrender at Fort Hatteras, and when she became a stationary target for enemy fire after running aground early in the Battle of Hampton Roads. Three of her crew died in that engagement.

Wolff survived the battle and the rest of the war, and went on to practice law in Massachusetts.  Twenty years after the war’s end and the passage of the Massachusetts anti-discrimination act, Wolff represented the plaintiff in a case that tested the statute’s limits and led to its expansion.  His client in that 1885 case, Edward E. Brown, also happened to be his law partner. Together with attorney Edwin Garrison Walker, Wolff and Brown established the state’s first Black law firm. It was a firm with a mission.

After the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883) that Congress lacked the constitutional authority to prohibit private discrimination (effectively neutralizing the federal Civil Rights Act) Wolff and his partners helped lead the campaign for stronger state-level legislation in Massachusetts. One element of that campaign took the form of a lawsuit against a Boston skating rink that refused to sell tickets to people of color. Brown was a plaintiff, and Wolff his attorney. They won.

Coordinating the case and legislative effort to enforce and amend the 1865 law was the Wendell Phillips Club, which functioned as a sort of precursor to the NAACP, bringing together business owners, ministers, and lawyers in the cause of civil rights.  Walker, Wolff, and Brown were at the forefront, litigating and lobbying for liberty pro bono publico while somehow bringing in enough billable work to pay the bills and raise their families (both of Wolff’s sons followed him into the law, by the way).

For a fuller account of the case, see my article “The Genesis of the Black Law Firm in Massachusetts,” Massachusetts Legal History 5 (1999).  Not quite everything ever published is available online, it seems, so if you would like a copy, email your request to peter@petervickery.com.

In the meantime, please devote a few moments of thought to James H. Wolff.  An exemplar of physical and moral courage, he is worthy of remembrance.

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