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African American Lawyers Who Have Helped Shape the United States

Black History Month is a time to commemorate the cultural heritage and accomplishments that African Americans have made that are an unforgettable part of United States history. In celebration of Black History Month, we are featuring eleven prominent black lawyers who have had a significant impact on American history. Some of these men and women have made their mark in the courtroom, some moved towards legislatures, and others have had success in both arenas.

African American individuals have made, and continue to make, changes in the civil rights and legal field. Since our country's founding 246 years ago, African American individuals have experienced, witnessed, and struggled with the systemic racial discrimination that was and is present in aspects of our daily lives. Although one would hope that the legal field, based upon basic ideas of equality and fair treatment, would be immune to such a tainted reputation, actuality has failed to meet the rhetorical requirement that the ideals of law have implemented.

Below, you will find eleven African American attorneys who have paved the way for generations of legal intellectuals by challenging a whole country's predetermined bigotry and prejudice.

Macon Bolling Allen

(1816-1894)

In the 1840s, Macon Bolling Allen quit his job as a teacher in Indiana to pursue being an apprentice to General Samuel Fessenden. Fessenden was an eminent lawyer and abolitionist in Maine, and with the help of his encouragement, Allen took and passed the Maine Bar exam. In 1844, when African Americans were not even thought to be U.S. citizens, Macon became the first black male with a license to practice law in the United States. At the time, a big percentage of the population in Maine was white, making it challenging for Allen to find clients. Due to this, Allen moved to Boston, MA, where he continued to encounter racist attitudes; nevertheless, he stood firm, passed the assessment to become a civil court judge in 1848, and became the first black judge in the country. Throughout his profession, Macon continued to improve the odds of success for black attorneys for the next half-century. 

Mary Ann Shadd Cary

(1823- 1893)

Cary has a story that crosses borders, as she was not only an attorney but also a journalist and teacher who committed her life to civil rights. Born in 1823, she was raised by an activist family, with her parents helping guide runaway slaves through the Underground Railroad. After participating in a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania, Mary Ann taught in schools for African American students for 12 years. Later on, in 1850, she moved with her family to Canada after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. Once she was out of the United States, her life course changed from teaching to journalism. She founded the first Canadian antislavery paper and became the first African American female editor and publisher in North America. Soon after the Civil War, Cary returned to the United States, specifically Washington, D.C., where she received her law degree from Howard University. Although there are few details on her legal career, she is known for her persistent work with the women's suffrage movement and even spoke in front of the House Judiciary Committee in 1874 as part of the fight for the right to vote.

Charlotte E. Ray

(1850-1911)

During the same time that Allen paved the wave for black men in the legal field, Charlotte E. Ray started her journey as a young girl in New York City. Ray's father, Reverend Charles Bennett Ray, was a prominent abolitionist with a progressive stance on educating both of his daughters. Reverend Ray sent Charlotte to the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C. Later she attended Howard University, a historically black college in New York, where she studied education. However, her actual dream was to be an attorney, so she began studying law. In 1872, she became the first black woman to receive a law degree and develop an independent commercial law practice in the United States. Although she was praised for her rhetoric and detailed legal understanding and admired as "one of the best lawyers on corporations in the country," she found it hard to keep a consistent clientele. Because of this, Charlotte returned to teaching; nevertheless, she stayed active in progressing women's suffrage and continued to fight for equal treatment for women of color. 

Ferdinand Lee Barnett

(1858-1936)

Born in Nashville, TN, in 1858, Ferdinand Lee Barnett and his family moved to Canada right before the Civil War. After the Civil War ended, his family settled in Chicago, IL, where he attended Northwestern Law School. After graduating, Barnett went on to be just the 3rd Black attorney admitted to the Illinois bar. Barnett was also an activist, writer, and editor and is famous for being the first editor and founder of Chicago's first Black paper, the Chicago Conservator. After some time, he chose to fully commit his profession to law and sold the Chicago Conservator to anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells (who later became his wife). Barnett worked as the assistant state's lawyer for 14 years. He also was an attorney for the Wells-Barnett Negro Fellowship League, where on behalf of an African American man who was wrongfully accused of murder, he defended and won a case before the Illinois Supreme Court. His combined careers in journalism and law genuinely displayed his dedication to justice and racial equality.

Charles Hamilton Houston

(1895-1950)

Known as "the man who killed Jim Crow," Charles Hamilton Houston began his career as an English teacher. But due to the obvious racism that he experienced while serving in the U.S. Infantry during World War I, he decided to study law and used his time fighting for men who could not fight back. Mr. Houston studied at Harvard Law and, during his time there, became the first black American to be the editor of the Harvard Law Review. In 1923, he received his Juris Doctor degree and joined the Washington D.C. bar in 1924. Later in his legal career, he became dean of Howard University School of Law and made that institution the leading training center for civil rights activists pursuing law. During this time, he acted as the first special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In this role, Houston was involved in almost every Supreme Court case between 1930 to 1950 that involved civil rights. He also is credited with writing the strategy that ended segregation in the public school system by proving integration would be less costly than making "separate but equivalent" schools.

Thurgood Marshall

(1908-1993)

Born in Baltimore, MD, Marshall was one of Charles Hamilton Houston's leading students and protégés. However, Marshall did not initially plan on going to Howard University. He first applied to the University of Maryland Law School in 1930, but they denied him because of his race. After he graduated from Howard and passed the bar, Marshall successfully sued the University of Maryland on behalf of other black students that were denied entry for the same reason he was. During Thurgood's legal career, he led the milestone case that banned racial segregation in schools: Brown vs. the Board of Education. After the Brown decision, while serving in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and soon after the U.S. Solicitor General's workplace, Marshall represented and won more Supreme Court cases than anyone in history. In 1967, he became the first black judge on the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served until 1991.

Jane Bolin

(1908-2007)

Born in Poughkeepsie, NY, in 1908, Bolin's father was a very successful lawyer. Following Charlotte E. Ray and her father's footsteps, Jane went to Wellesley College, where her advisor tried to convince her she shouldn’t apply to Yale Law School due to the fact that black women would neither be accepted nor succeed there. However, she was determined to prove that narrative false, so she applied anyway. Luckily, Yale accepted her, and she was the only African American in her class. She finished in 1931, passed the New York City Bar exam, and began practicing law in 1932. Only seven years into her profession, Bolin became the first female United States judge when she was appointed to the New York Domestic Relations Court (now called Family Court). Bolin spent the next four decades there battling racial discrimination, working relentlessly to end segregation in child placement centers and probation assignments, and advocating for children's rights.

Barbara Jordan

(1936-1996)

Jordan grew up in Houston's Fifth Ward, where she was known for many distinctive qualities– her speaking capability, ambition, charm, and even her size. Following her dream of being a lawyer, Jordan applied to the University of Texas at Austin; however, she was barred because of segregation. Because of this, she attended Texas Southern University, the "separate but equal" law school for black students. During her first year as a student, her debate coach informed her she wasn't good enough to compete, but she happily defied him by later leading the TSU debate group to a national championship. Jordan finished her undergraduate degree magna cum laude and went on to attend Boston University School of Law, where she was the only female in her class. In 1959 she graduated, started a private law practice in Houston, and in 1966 won a Texas state senate seat. After Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in 1968, Jordan honored his legacy with a gripping speech at a Houston funeral. Not long after, she became the first woman chosen in her own right to represent Texas in Congress and was the first black Congresswoman to represent the Deep South. In 1976, she made history when she was the Democratic National Convention's keynote speaker. Throughout her profession as a Congresswoman, Barbara had her hands in over 300 pieces of legislation, a lot of which still stand. After retiring, she chaired the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform after being selected by former President Clinton. 

Constance Baker Motley

(1921-2005)

Motley was an unanticipated civil rights hero. Growing up near Yale University, Constance was almost completely unaware of black history as a young adult and did not personally experience bigotry until later in high school. However, at 15 years of age, Motley read James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois, which sparked her interest in Black History. She then met a minister who taught classes on Black History, which focused her attention on civil rights and the underrepresentation of black attorneys. These classes influenced her desire to practice law; however, she did not have the means to go to college, so she went to work for the National Youth Administration. She met businessman and philanthropist Clarence W. Blakeslee through this work, who offered to pay for her education after hearing her speak at a New Haven recreation center. With this financial aid, Baker Motley was able to attend college, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in economics in 1943. Constance got her Bachelor of Laws at Columbia Law School just three years later. Throughout her legal profession, Motley was very involved in the civil rights movement, once even visiting Martin Luther King, Jr. in jail. In 1950, she wrote the original complaint in the Brown v. Board of Education case and became the first African American female ever to argue a case before the Supreme Court. She later became the first African American woman to be appointed as a federal judge, the first African American woman to serve as a member of the New York State Senate, and the first woman to serve as Manhattan borough president. Her legal contributions do not go unnoticed, as she was a force to be reckoned with in and out of the courtroom. 

Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr.

(1937-2005)

Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, it wasn't until late middle school that Johnnie discovered his passion for debate after figuring out he was more interested in words and language rather than numbers. While his parents had always believed he would be a doctor or research scientist, young Johnnie always knew he wished to be a lawyer. But, unbeknownst to Johnnie, his dad had already worked to help Johnnie achieve those dreams. Cochran Sr. managed to get Johnnie admitted to Los Angeles High School, where he had access to a fully equipped library that was not offered at the high school he was supposed to attend. After high school, Johnnie went to  UCLA for his undergraduate degree and then got his law degree from Loyola Law School in 1962. After graduating from law school, Cochran Jr. worked briefly as a city attorney in Los Angeles' criminal division before starting his own firm. When he started his own firm, Cochran Jr.'s first large case was representing a Black widow who took legal action against numerous law enforcement officers who had shot and killed her husband. During his career, Mr. Johnnie Cochran, Jr. protected and defended many Black individuals from the police brutality and abuse they often faced.

Fred Gray

(1930-)

Mr. Gray is most famously known for the crucial role he played in the successful desegregation of Montgomery buses, both as legal counsel and as a strategist. After high school, Gray went to Alabama State College for Negroes where he received his bachelor's degree in 1951. Regardless of his plans to become a historian and preacher, Mr. Gray relocated to Ohio after being encouraged to apply to law school by one of his instructors. After being accepted to Case Western Reserve University School of Law, he received his Juris Doctor degree in 1954. At the time, there were no Alabama universities that would accept African American students. Soon after finishing law school, Gray represented both Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks after they were criminally charged for refusing to give up their bus seats to white passengers. He also challenged the constitutionality of Alabama laws that mandated segregation of buses in Browder v. Gayle, which the United States Supreme Court affirmed in 1956. A few years later, in 1970, Fred Gray served as an elected representative in the Alabama State Legislature, making him among the first two African American public officials to serve in the legislature since the Reconstruction age. In 1979, Fred was elected to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama by former President Jimmy Carter, but he was forced to withdraw his name due to the massive opposition from conservative political opponents. Throughout his career, Gray also worked with and defended Martin Luther King Jr. and was a member of the Alabama House of Representatives until 2015.

Continuing the Fight

The fight for social justice that was promoted during the civil rights movement still continues today. While Black Americans have acquired certain rights under the law, they are still poorly and disproportionately impacted by many laws and suggested biases. Sadly, remnants of racism, discrimination, prejudice, and unequal treatment, still haunt our world today and can most clearly be seen in our criminal justice system.

Although the law is supposed to offer equality, the American legal system ought to be scrutinized for the various occurrences in which it has failed to follow through on its promises to its Black citizens. For over 200 years, African Americans have comprised the mainstay of a country that was founded on principles of freedom from which they were explicitly omitted for too long. This Black History Month, we acknowledge just a fraction of the contributions African American lawyers have made to shape the American legal system, gearing it towards connecting the gap between inequitable promises of freedom and their actual application to all Americans, no matter the color of their skin. In their commitment to upholding the law, these men and women have challenged biases, discrimination, and disparity of opportunity to secure the American promises of freedom and justice for all.

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