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The story of Black Americans is still being written. Black lawyers are boundary breakers—from Macon Bolling Allen (largely regarded as the first Black lawyer) to seeing his legacy in former President Barack Obama and current Vice President Kamala Harris. The story of Black lawyers predates the Emancipation Proclamation and their influence continues to shape and influence our daily lives.
Macon Bolling Allen
Macon Bolling Allen is largely regarded to be the first Black man to become a lawyer, argue before a jury and hold a judicial position in the United States. Allen passed the bar exam in Main in 1844 and become a Massachusetts Justice of the Peace in 1847. After the American Civil War, he moved to South Carolina to practice law and was elected to be a judge in 1873.
Charlotte E. Ray
Charlotte E. Ray was an American lawyer, and the first Black woman to become a lawyer in the United States after she graduated from Howard University in 1872. Not only is Ray an inspiration to the women who came after her, but for women of her time, Ray’s admission to the District of Columbia Bar served as a precedent by women in other states who sought admission to their state bars.
Charles Hamilton Houston – “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow”
A graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Law School, Charles Hamilton Houston was integral in dismantling Jim Crow laws. In his time at Harvard, Hamilton became the first Black student elected to the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review. His legal arguments attacked segregation in schools and racial housing covenants. In addition, Hamilton was the Dean of Howard University Law School and the NAACP’s first special counsel, or Litigation Director. Houston is said to have mentored a generation of Black attorneys including, Thurgood Marshall.
Trailblazer, Jane Bolin was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School and the first Black woman to be a judge in the United States. Bolin was known for her studious nature and overcame racism at Wellesley College where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1928. She then went on to Yale Law School where she was met with similar racist hostility. Still, Bolin persevered and on July 22, 1939, she was sworn in as a judge in New York. She served on the Family Court bench for four decades where she advocated for children and families. During her time as a judge, she also helped change segregationist policies entrenched in the judicial system. For example, she helped end skin-color based assignments for probation officers.
Thurgood Marshall – “Do what you think is right and let the law catch up”
The first Black lawyer on the Supreme Court of the United States was Thurgood Marshall. Marshall was a groundbreaker in the legal field in many ways. He is responsible for arguing several civil rights cases including Murray v. Pearson and Chambers v. Florida. Marshall’s bible was used by Kamala Harris at her swearing into office as Vice President of the United States.
Students who grew up in Texas in the 1980s and 1990s know about the highlights of Barbara Jordan’s life. Jordan attended Texas Southern University—a historically Black college—after she was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin because of segregation. She went on to attend Boston University School of Law and graduated in 1959. Jordan became the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from a southern state after Reconstruction and the first woman from the state. She was the first Black person and the first woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 1976.
Johnnie Cochran was a famous lawyer who represented his famous clients with the kind of flair we expect from lawyers today. While Cochran gained notoriety during the O.J. Simpson trial in 1996, he was also known for his work as a civil rights activist. Cochran was inspired to become a lawyer by Thurgood Marshall and his Brown V. Board of Education victory. Cochran began making a name for himself as a lawyer in the 1960s and 1970s as he began litigating a high number of high-profile police brutality cases. He founded The Cochran Firm in 1983 which boasts 33 offices in 15 states.
While Anita Hill didn’t break barriers by becoming the first Black lawyer or first Black woman judge, her contribution to society has genuinely improved the working conditions for all women. In 1991, an interview Hill had with the FBI about then-nominee to the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas went public. Hill was called to testify in Justice Thomas’s confirmation hearing about the sexual harassment she experienced from him. After her testimony, sexual harassment complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) more than doubled. In addition, Congress passed a bill that gave harassment victims the right to seek federal damage awards, back pay and reinstatement. Hill’s testimony laid the foundation for current movements we see today such as the #MeToo movement.
President Barack Obama is a source of pride for many Americans and people around the world. He is an example of how far we’ve come—and the backlash to his presidency is a reminder of just how far we have to go. Obama became the first Black president of the United States of America.
On January 20, 2021, Kamala Harris became the first woman, first African American and first Asian American to serve as Vice President of the United States. She is the highest-ranking female official in the history of the United States. Prior to becoming Vice President, she was the only Black woman in the United States Senate.
The contributions of Black lawyers to American society are expansive and go far beyond this list. This month and every month, The Carlson Law Firm recognizes the contributions of Black Americans to our society and the legal world.
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