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THOMAS FARRAGHER

New exhibit documents the long road to justice for African-Americans in Boston

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Julian Houston on the second floor of the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse.

By Globe Columnist 

He had grown up in the segregated South, where black kids like him had to search for a toilet or a water fountain deemed suitable for their use, where the n-word was a common and cutting epithet hurled without hesitation or regret.

The only black student in his class at a Connecticut boarding school, Julian Houston chose Boston University for his undergraduate and his law school work for two reasons: He didn’t have the grades for Yale, and Martin Luther King Jr. had received a doctorate degree from BU.

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If Boston was good enough for King, it was good enough for him, too.

“I was determined to get involved in the civil rights movement in Boston,’’ Houston, now a retired state judge, told me the other afternoon in a quiet office at the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse.

“And two months after I arrived in 1962, I was going to Roxbury on the weekends to work on a boycott of the Wonder Bread factory there. The black community was buying their goods there, but there were no representatives on the employment side.’’

Julian Houston was determined to change that, embracing a social justice movement that animated his life. It still does.

And it will be a centerpiece of an exhibit to be unveiled at the Brooke courthouse on Thursday that has been a longtime passion for Houston. It’s called “Long Road to Justice: The African-American Experience in the Massachusetts Courts.’’

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“I was sort of taken in by the black leadership of Boston,’’ he said. “I was the guy who knew all the freedom songs, and people up here really didn’t know them. So when there was a demonstration, they asked me to come up and lead the audience in those freedom songs.’’

In many ways, Julian Houston has been singing ever since, the lyrics of justice still on his lips, its rhythm still a part of his social justice metabolism.

“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round, turn me ‘round/

“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round/

“I’m gonna keep on walkin’/

“Keep on talkin’/

Marchin’ on to freedom land/”

Houston, now 73, wants to enshrine in our consciousness the struggle toward justice for African-Americans, from their arrival here in chains in 1638 to the present.

He is the exhibit’s driving force, pushing for its permanent place in the courthouse named for the Massachusetts Republican who was the first African-American to be elected to the US Senate since Reconstruction.

He’s also a walking, talking exhibit himself, the personification of the recent African-American judicial history in this state where he served as a judge for 27 years beginning in 1979 in Roxbury, service that led to his later appointment to the Superior Court bench.

“I think that for a lot of young lawyers — and I was a young lawyer when I first met Judge Houston — the idea that there was somebody like us on the bench was affirming and aspirational,’’ former governor Deval Patrick said. “He’s been dogged. Julian Houston is himself a pioneer, and he’s done exceptional and selfless work to make sure we honor other pioneers.’’

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What’s remarkable is that his pioneering career on the bench almost didn’t happen.

Governor Michael Dukakis’s first term — ended by his electoral defeat the previous year at the hands of fellow Democrat Edward King — was only minutes from expiring when his nomination of Houston to the juvenile session of Roxbury Municipal Court ran into trouble at a wild session of the Governor’s Council.

There were heated words. Arms were twisted. A key vote was switched. In an unusual move, Dukakis chaired the council meeting himself, winning Houston’s confirmation as King waited outside to receive the symbolic keys to the State House from Dukakis.

It was worth the histrionics.

“Pardon the superlatives, but this guy is just an extraordinary human being,’’ Dukakis told me on the phone from Southern California, where he is teaching. “He grew up in the South. Went to segregated schools. Bright, thoughtful, eloquent at times. He was a great judge, a great representative of his community, and just a very special human being.’’

Now retired, Houston’s still at work with an eye on history. “We have a saying in the law that it’s important to establish a record,’’ he told me.

He’s established an impressive one of his own.

When he went to work in Roxbury, what he saw from the bench disturbed him. Poor people seeking the protection of the court came into his courtroom accompanied by minor children who had nowhere else to go.

“The only place for them was to sit in the courtroom, where they were exposed to all kinds of descriptions of violence and drugs,’’ he said. “It was awful. I said we can do better than this.’’

So that’s what he did, establishing child care centers modeled after those in New York City and Washington, D.C., that ultimately spread to more than a dozen courthouses around the state before falling victim to budget cuts in the early 2000s.

“I was determined to use my position on the court as a way to elevate the court as an institution in the community,’’ he said. “I knew that if I got there and I was black, I would have a better shot at making a difference in how the court was viewed by people in the community than if I were white. I had a certain responsibility to the young people who came into the court — to enforce the law, but also to exhibit compassion. And that’s what I tried to do.’’

What he is trying to do with the exhibit that opens amid fanfare on Thursday is to trace a history that includes the story of two slaves — Quock Walker and Elizabeth Freeman — who used the courts to fight for their rights and their freedom, helping underline a belief that the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 made slavery illegal.

“This wouldn’t have happened without him,’’ said Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor who will emcee Thursday’s event. “He’s a very courtly, a very gracious man, and he’s also very persistent. He had this idea and he kept nudging and nudging and pushing and pushing.’’

Margaret H. Marshall, a former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, said despite the challenges he confronted — those ugly epithets, those segregated water fountains — Houston remains a man without bitterness, resentment, or regret.

“I think we sometimes forget how difficult the challenges that he has had to confront were,’’ Marshall said. “He has borne no grudges. He has quietly and consistently tried to make the world a better place for everybody. I’ve known him for decades, and I’m always struck by his dignity and inclusiveness despite all the hurdles he had to overcome. The bias against African-Americans has been so pervasive, and he’s of an age when that bias would have cut powerfully against him.’’

Part of the exhibit that Houston has helped breathe life into includes the story of the man for whom the courthouse we had been sitting in was named for — Ed Brooke.

“He had been on the law review at Boston University Law School,’’ Houston recalled about Brooke. “And he needed a job. He interviewed at the major law firms in town and nobody would hire him except one firm. They said they would hire him as long as he stayed in an office in the back and not come out to deal with clients.’’

That’s part of the African-American experience in the Massachusetts court system.

The judge who knows the importance of establishing a record wants to make stories like those endure. They teach us. They tell us who we were and who we are.

“That’s what it’s intended to do,’’ he said. “It’s a record. The sacrifices that others have made make it possible to find justice for black people in Massachusetts.’’

Few know that better than Julian Houston, the freedom fighter who became a judge, a protector of the record.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.