The Pioneers: Five Black Attorneys Who Changed History
Angelica Cesario | June 19, 2020
Juneteenth, marking the day in 1865 when the last slaves in the United States were finally freed, has long been a holiday for much of Black America. This year, amid Black Lives Matter protests in all 50 states, the rest of the country, including major law firms, is taking time to recognize this important day.
In honor of Juneteenth this year, we’ve compiled a list of five black attorneys who were truly the firsts of their time and paved the way for the generations to come. Their fearless tenacity opened doors for many, and we pay tribute to them today and every day.
Civil rights advocate Constance Baker Motley was the first black woman to be appointed to a federal judgeship in 1966. Her achievements also include working alongside Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, representing Martin Luther King Jr., serving in the New York State Senate, and serving as Manhattan Borough President in New York City. (Photo courtesy of Columbia Law School)
Thurgood Marshall made immeasurable strides for the civil rights movement during his lifetime. Working under his mentor and well-known civil rights icon Charles Hamilton Houston at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Marshall successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education which famously declared unconstitutional the “separate but equal” doctrine. In 1965, Marshall became the first black person appointed to the post of U.S. Solicitor General. Two years later, he became the first black person appointed to the United States Supreme Court, where he served until 1991.
Macon Bolling Allen is known to be the first black male attorney in the United States. He was admitted to practice in Maine in 1844, and later practiced in Massachusetts where he was appointed as a justice of the peace for Middlesex County. Allen moved to South Carolina in 1868, where he was also appointed to a judiciary post. It is believed that he is also the first black person to be appointed to a judiciary post in the U.S.
In 1872, Charlotte Ray became the first black female attorney in the United States. She was active in the NAACP and the suffragist movement. Fun fact: she applied to and was admitted to Howard University Law School under the name “C. E. Ray,” in a possible attempt to hide her gender.
Jane Bolin was the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, and in 1939 she became the first black female judge in the country - she served as a judge in New York Family Court for more than forty years. She was also the first black woman to work as an attorney for the New York Law Department, and likewise, to join the New York City Bar Association.
As these trailblazers illustrate, Black attorneys have been fundamental in advancing both the legal profession and the causes of justice and equality, for centuries. Today more than ever, it is urgent for law firms to recognize and advance the Black attorneys in their ranks, and put their resources towards ensuring that the legal profession reflects the nation at large.
Angelica Cesario is Lawline's Director of Attorney Education & Development. She graduated cum laude from Amherst College in 2008 and holds a B.A. in Women's and Gender Studies and a Certificate in Latino and Latin American Studies. She received her J.D. from Columbia Law School in 2013 and is admitted to practice law in New York and New Jersey. Before joining Lawline, Angelica worked as a plaintiff-side labor & employment litigation attorney.