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Making History in the City Council: Boston’s Black Common Council Members

In honor of Black History Month, we are highlighting some of the first Black members of the Boston City Council. 

From 1822-1909, the city legislature was bicameral, meaning it consisted of two bodies: the Board of Aldermen and the Common Council. The Board of Aldermen members were elected at-large and members of the larger Common Council were elected from wards of the city. The men highlighted below were members of the Common Council.

George Lewis Ruffin

Portrait of Hon. Judge George L. Ruffin
Hon. Judge George L. Ruffin (NYPL Digital Collections)

George Lewis Ruffin was born on December 16, 1834 in Richmond, Virginia and he moved to Boston with his family in 1853. He married Josephine St. Pierre on June 1, 1858 and worked as a barber while studying and writing about law. Ruffin participated in both the 1864 and 1865 National Negro Conventions. In 1869, he became the first Black graduate of Harvard Law School and went on to open a successful law practice in Boston. Ruffin was elected to the Boston Common Council in 1876 and served two terms. In 1883, he was appointed by Governor Benjamin F. Butler as a judge to the Boston Municipal Court in Charlestown. Ruffin was the first Black man to hold both positions.

You can view the personal record of George L. Ruffin in our City Council collection here


John J. Smith

Portrait of John James Smith
John James Smith (MA State Library)

John J. Smith was born in Virginia on November 1, 1826 and moved to Boston in the 1840s. He married Georgiana Smith on May 14, 1845. Smith ran a barbershop on the corner of Howard Street and Bulfinch Street that became a meeting place for abolitionists like Lewis Hayden, William Lloyd Garrison, and Charles Sumner. Smith also fought for equal school rights in Boston. During the Civil War, he worked as a recruiting officer for the 5th Cavalry. Smith served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1868, 1869, and 1872. He was the first Black legislator in the state to serve more than one term. He was elected to the Boston Common Council in 1878.

You can view the personal record of John J. Smith in our City Council collection here


William O. Armstrong

Portrait of William O. Armstrong
William O. Armstrong (MA State Library)

William Oscar Armstrong was born in Oberlin, Ohio on March 10, 1847. After his graduation from Oberlin College he traveled to Haiti for missionary work. Sometime later he moved to Boston and worked as a tailor. He married Harriett Elizabeth Armstrong in 1871.  Armstrong served two terms on the Boston Common Council from Ward 9 in 1885 and 1886. He also served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1887-1888. He became the Prohibition Party’s nominee for Massachusetts State Auditor in 1891; making him the first Black candidate for statewide office in Massachusetts. He was appointed as a court officer for the Suffolk Superior Court in 1892 and served in that role until 1923.

You can view the personal record of William O. Armstrong in our City Council collection here


Andrew B. Lattimore

Andrew B. Lattimore
Personal record of Andrew B. Lattimore

Andrew Berkely Lattimore was born August 4, 1852 in Hampton, Virginia and attended the Hampton Colored Institute. He married Mary A. Spriggs on January 17, 1877. Lattimore moved to Boston in 1886 and was elected to the Boston Common Council not long after. He served two terms on the Common Council, in 1887 and 1888. Lattimore went on to serve two terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1889 and 1890. In 1905, he served as a constable in the City of Boston.


Between 1876-1909, there were fifteen Black Common Council members, including: George Ruffin, John J. Smith, James W. Pope, William O. Armstrong, Andrew B. Lattimore, Charles E. Harris, Nelson Gaskins, Walden Banks, Charles H. Hall, Stanley Ruffin, J. Henderson Allston, Edward A. Armistead, S. William Simms, Charles W. M. Williams, and Isaac L. Roberts.

In 1909, the City Charter was rewritten and a unicameral City Council was adopted. Thomas I. Atkins was the first Black City Councilor elected to the unicameral body serving from 1968-1971.



National Parks Service, Black Heritage Trail

Boston Globe, “John J. Smith, state representative, abolitionist, who rescued black people from slavery.”

State Library of Massachusetts, “Massachusetts Legislators: John James Smith.”

National Parks Service, “John J. Smith House.”

Knight, Stephanie, “George Lewis Ruffin.”

George Lewis Ruffin. (2011). In Massachusetts Hall of Black Achievement. Item 33.

Harvard Law School Library blog, “From the Barbershop to the Bench.”

Boston Globe, “Andrew B. Lattimore dead.”

A Manual for the Use of the General Court, 1887.

A Manual for the Use of the General Court, 1888. 

Boston Globe, “William O. Armstrong.”

"Reports of Proceedings of the City Council of Boston for the Year Commencing January 2, 1905 and ending December 30, 1905"

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