Moses Simons was the first black Yale graduate and the first black lawyer in the nation. Simons practiced law in 1816, decades earlier than some of the more well-known, and believed to be first, black practitioners like Macon B. Allen (1844); George Vashon (1848); and John Mercer Langston (1850).
Simons was believed to be the child of a Jewish father from London and a black mother who was from South Carolina’s free black community. Although his father’s family owned enslaved people, they funded his education beginning with his degree from Yale University in 1809 (65 years before Edward Alexander Bouchet previously believed to be Yale’s first black graduate in 1874). Simons is also Yale’s first Jewish graduate.
In 1810 Simons attended Litchfield Law School in Litchfield, Connecticut. Fellow alumni included two vice presidents, Aaron Burr and John C. Calhoun. After graduation, Simons apprenticed for the New York State Attorney General, Abraham Van Vechten.
Simons obtained his license in 1816, practicing with the handful of attorneys in New York City’s criminal court where he worked for the next four years. He defended clients appearing in front of white juries, courts, colleagues, and adversaries until his practice declined in 1818, due to the publication of his own trial.
Simons and his brother attended two public dances hosted by French-born dance master Charles Berault at his school. The second night, Simons’ brother danced with the “handsomest girl in the school,” causing several men to complain and threaten to leave the school. Berault asked Simons and his brother to leave. They left voluntarily.
On January 8, 1818, Simons purchased another ticket to a dance at Washington Hall which was also sponsored by Berault. Simons attempted to enter and Berault barred him at the door claiming that other patrons were uncomfortable with the presence of “two colored gentlemen.” Simons then demanded that Berault name the individuals who objected to his attendance. When Berault refused, Simons slapped him in the face.
Simons was charged with assault and defended by prominent colleagues Joseph Fay and another attorney known to us only as Bogardus. His attorneys adroitly argued Simons exclusion by Berault was in fact the first blow struck in the altercation. They described Simons as “an accredited gentleman… [who] had purchased a ticket, which entitled him to an admittance, was refused and, in a momentary excitement of passion, while smarting under the indignity offered to his feelings…inflicted the blow.”
The testimony of his friend, John Watts, was ultimately used against Simons. Watts testified Simons was “perfectly fair and unexceptional.” But asked on cross-examination if he would allow his own sister to “dance with the defendant – however fair his character may be?” Watts declined to answer. Simons was found guilty and fined ten dollars.
The trial, itself, did not damage Simons’ reputation as much as a publication by Attorney Daniel Rogers who described the proceeding and added that Simons and others like him represented a “different cast of men” who should “remain in their place.”
After the Rogers article appeared, Simons’ caseload steadily declined. Before publication of the trial, Simons litigated approximately thirty cases in 1817. He had only eleven cases in 1819, and eight in 1820. Simons left New York and moved to London in 1821, where he died in 1822.