Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Sarah Parker Remond are usually the first names to come to mind when one thinks about the U.S. Civil Rights and Abolitionist Movement. Absent from this venerable list is Emiliano Mundrucu, a Black Brazilian immigrant and activist who lived in Boston in the mid-1800s. Although almost entirely unknown, he was possibly the first black person in U.S. history to mount a legal challenge against racism and segregation.
In 1833, Mundrucu sued a Massachusetts steamboat captain for refusing to allow him and his family passage in the whites-only cabins of a vessel traveling from New Bedford to Nantucket. Mundrucu had been traveling on business and had taken his sick wife Harriet and their one-year-old daughter Emiliana with him. He tried to accommodate his wife and daughter in the ladies’ cabin – a comfortable space with private berths where women wouldn’t be bothered by strange men – but was stopped by Captain Edward Barker. “Your wife a’n’t a lady,” Barker told Mundrucu, “she is a n—er.” Barker directed them to the forward or second-class cabin where passengers had to sleep on mattresses on a wet and cold floor. Outraged, Mundrucu protested that he had paid the highest fare and expected the best accommodation for his family; Harriet simply ignored Barker and went down the steps to the ladies’ cabin before she was blocked. A standoff ensued and was only interrupted by a storm that forced all passengers too disembark for the night.
Determined to make their point, the Mundrucu family returned the next morning and made their way into the whites-only cabins. They were stopped again and Mundrucu was ordered to go and see Barker in the wheelhouse. Defiant, he looked the captain in the eyes and said: “My wife is a Lady, she no go forward.” Barker recited the boat rules: “Colored ladies are not admitted in the cabin.” The argument then got even more heated and personal. Mundrucu told Barker that Harriet was as white as the captain’s mother. Having probably never been insulted like that, not least by a Black person, Barker was incensed. He ordered the family, their luggage and horse off the boat. Mundrucu had the last word: he vowed to “go and get a writ out immediately.” Thus began one of the most remarkable and unusual chapters in the country’s early history.
Mundrucu v. Barker was tried in Boston’s Court of Common Pleas in front of a packed crowd. Proceedings soon became national news and were reported on the front pages of newspapers in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and as far south as Virginia. The case also captivated abolitionists and activists from the U.S. and as far as Britain. Many of them rallied around Mundrucu, including his friend and abolitionist David Lee Child who helped put together his legal case. Child was also instrumental in convincing Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, one of the country’s most respected lawyers, to join Mundrucu’s legal team. A Black Brazilian immigrant, a relatively poor second-hand clothes salesman, had somehow focused national and global attention on segregation and deep-seated racism in U.S. society.
Mundrucu had cast the first stone against segregation on public transport. In doing so, he was possibly the first person (Black or white) in U.S. history to litigate against segregation and racism. Mundrucu v. Barker came a full eight years before Frederick Douglass famously refused to leave the Eastern Railroad Company’s first-class railcars in 1841, incidents which sparked concerted and successful state-wide campaigns against segregation on Massachusetts trains. So how did a Black Brazilian immigrant end up setting this precedent? His foreign background and unique transnational perspectives and experiences are key to understanding this.
Mundrucu brought a tradition of Black resistance to Boston that had been shaped by his experiences as a Black man in South America and the Caribbean. Prior to settling in Boston in 1828, he had had a remarkable career as an Atlantic revolutionary and soldier. He had fled from Brazil for his role in a failed republican revolution against the monarchy, sought employment in Haiti, and fought for independence in the newly formed South American republic of Gran Colombia. He had met with presidents and dignitaries from across the hemisphere. Even though he was a “pardo” – a term used in Brazil to describe a person of mixed racial heritage (Black, white and indigenous) – he could vote in his native country and even commanded a military battalion. When he and other free Black men in Brazil faced racially-motivated opposition to their upward social mobility, they used legal and political mechanisms to defend their constitutional rights. He brought this experience to the fight against segregation and racism in the U.S. Northeast and refused to back down when faced by Barker’s prejudice.
In court, Webster’s star power and charisma captivated the jury and courtroom; behind the scenes, Child and Mundrucu had done most of the groundwork in chasing down witnesses and recording depositions. Their case rested on proving that Barker had breached contractual obligations by denying the Mundrucu family accommodation in the cabins they had rightly paid for. “It is a denial of civil rights and an affront to take the money and deny him these rights”, Webster told the court. The breach of contract was only the foreground to a much wider battle though. Mundrucu and his lawyers wanted to expose the inhumanity of segregation practices. Forcing a sick woman and her child to stay in a flooded and cold cabin where passengers had to huddle around one fireplace to keep warm amounted to a “violation of humanity.” Webster chided Massachusetts whites for their hypocrisy: they celebrated their antislavery history but still treated Black people like dirt.
Barker’s lawyers countered by arguing that segregation on steamboats was standard practice. They also insinuated that, as a Black man, Mundrucu should have known his place in U.S. society. “If it is a misfortune to be colored he can go back” to Brazil, they told him. In other words, if he wasn’t happy with the racial status quo, he should just leave. Remarkably, almost two hundred years later, BIPOC immigrants in the U.S. and Europe face the same type of xenophobia and racism.
The trial was brief and the jury found Barker guilty of a breach of contract. It was a major blow to segregation and immediately stirred controversy. One newspaper editor criticized the jurors, noting: “After this verdict, it is presumed that the gentlemen of the jury can have no possible objection to the admission of ladies of color to the society of their wives and daughters in stages and steamboats.” Mundrucu and his legal team couldn’t revel in their victory for long though. Barker’s lawyers immediately appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the highest judicial authority in the state. After another short trial, the case was overturned. However, Mundrucu was not about to give up. He and Child started preparing an appeal to the federal court system. Mundrucu’s crusade against racism and segregation was going to the highest courts in the land. Only it never made it there as the case was dropped in late 1834 when Mundrucu decided to return to Brazil after being pardoned by his government.
What might have happened had Mundrucu v. Barker reached the U.S. Supreme Court? Could he have won and changed the course of U.S. history? Historians don’t deal in “what-ifs” and counterfactuals. Suffice to say, we probably would be reading about him in history books. Instead, there’s no biography on his life. There are no drawings or photos of him either and he himself wrote frustratingly little despite his extraordinary life.
Mundrucu’s contribution the U.S. civil rights and abolitionist movement went far beyond the 1833-34 court case. In 1841, he returned to Boston and in subsequent decades became a prominent activist against segregation in schools, transport and public spaces, while also advocating for full citizenship rights for African Americans. In January 1863, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Douglass and other prominent African American abolitionists as they celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation.1
We need to re-examine how Black immigrants like Mundrucu have shaped U.S. history. Proponents of American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) would have you believe that Black immigrants do not share the same identity or struggle for civil rights as African Americans. Mundrucu’s story proves otherwise: they’ve been fighting the same fight for at least two hundred years. He deserves a plaque, a statue or even a biopic. At the very least, he should be recognized and celebrated among the pantheon of African American abolitionists and activists who fought against the twin evils of slavery and racism.2
- Lloyd Belton (2020) ‘A deep interest in your cause’: the inter-American sphere of Black abolitionism and civil rights, Slavery & Abolition, DOI: 10.1080/0144039X.2020.1860651 ↩
- Lloyd Belton (2018) ‘Emiliano F.B. Mundrucu: Inter-American revolutionary and abolitionist (1791–1863)’, Atlantic Studies, 15:1, 62-82, DOI: 10.1080/14788810.2017.1336609 ↩