Legal Pioneers in Black History

Tuesday, February 20th, 2024

In honor of Black History Month, we’re sharing a list of twenty black attorneys who were truly the firsts of their time. Their fearless determination opened doors for many, for generations to come.

by Angelica Cesario, Lawline

Austin T. Walden
In 1965, Austin T. Walden became the first black man appointed to a judgeship in the state of Georgia since the Reconstruction Period. Prior to becoming a judge, he served as a civil rights attorney, litigating equal pay cases for black educators and education desegregation cases concerning the Atlanta public school system and the University of Georgia.
Constance Baker Motley
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.
Charles Hamilton Houston
Charles Hamilton Houston played a pivotal role in dismantling Jim Crow Laws, which were crippling and discriminatory laws that infamously stripped black people of their basic, fundamental rights for nearly a century. Charles Hamilton Houston litigated many of the cases that laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education and mentored Thurgood Marshall. Amongst many other accomplishments, he was a graduate of Harvard Law School and served as a dean at Howard Law School.
Charlotte E. Ray
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.
Elreta Melton Alexander
In 1945, Elreta Melton Alexander became the first Black woman to graduate from Columbia Law School. She was also the first Black woman in North Carolina to be licensed and practice as a lawyer. Among other firsts of hers are: the first Black woman to argue before the North Carolina Supreme Court, formed one of the first integrated law firms in the South, and became the first Black woman to be elected a district court judge in North Carolina.
Eunice Carter
Eunice Carter was one of the first black women lawyers in New York State and one of the first women of color in the United States to become a prosecutor. In fact, she was instrumental in taking down the famous mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Her list of achievements also includes service on the United Nations committee to advance the status of women in the world.
George Lewis Ruffin
In 1869, George Lewis Ruffin became the first black person to graduate from Harvard Law School. He was also the first black person elected to serve on the Boston City Council and in the Massachusetts state legislature. In 1883, Ruffin became the first black judge in Massachusetts when he was appointed to the Charlestown municipal court.
James Chiles
James Chiles was the first black man to practice law in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1910, he argued before the Supreme Court in Chiles vs. Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company, representing himself. In that case, Chiles was a passenger on a train from Washington, DC to Lexington, Kentucky. Despite having a first-class ticket, he was forcibly moved to the “Colored” Section of the train. He filed suit against the railroad arguing that his constitutional rights were violated. The Supreme Court upheld the state’s separate but equal law, but Chiles’ case laid important groundwork for the future precedent that would later overturn the separate but equal doctrine.
James Weldon Johnson
In 1897, James Weldon Johnson became the first black person to pass the Florida bar. Johnson was also a civil rights activist, published author, leader of the Harlem Renaissance, and co-writer of the famous song “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Jane Bolin
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.
John Mercer Langston
John Mercer Langston was one of the first black people to hold an elective position in the United States. He became the first black man to represent Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1854, he was admitted to the Ohio Bar, becoming one of only a handful of black people licensed to practice law in the United States.
Jonathan Jasper Wright
In 1865, Jonathan Jasper Wright became the first black person admitted to practice law in the state of Pennsylvania. He later served as an Associate Justice on the South Carolina Supreme Court from 1870 to 1877, during the Reconstruction Era.
Lutie Lytle
Lutie Lytle was the third black woman to earn a law degree in the United States, the first black woman admitted to practice law in the states of Kansas and Tennessee, and in 1897, became one of the first female law instructors in the world. She held a deep love for the law and as the daughter of former slaves, understood intimately its powerful impact. “I like constitutional law because the anchor of my race is grounded on the constitution,” Lytle said. “It is the certificate of our liberty and our equality before the law. Our citizenship is based on it, and hence I love it.” She embraced her passion and used it to serve the black community for her entire legal career.
Macon Bolling Allen
Macon Bolling Alle is believed to be the first African American to become a lawyer and to argue before a jury. 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.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary
Born in 1823, Mary Ann Shadd Cary was an abolitionist, journalist, and attorney. She was the first black woman to become a newspaper editor in the United States and the second black woman to earn a law degree in the country (the first was Charlotte E. Ray). Shadd Cary founded a newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, as part of a larger effort to help escaped slaves find assistance and to cover abolitionist news and issues. She also founded a school for children of all races. In 1863, she became a recruiter for the Union Army encouraging slaves to join the fight against the Confederacy. Not stopping there, she earned her law degree from Howard University in 1883 at sixty years old. Truly a legend.
Mahala Ashley Dickerson
In 1946, Mahala Ashley Dickerson became the first black woman to practice law in the state of Alabama. She later became the first black woman to be admitted to the Alaska State Bar, and the second in Indiana. Dickerson was a civil rights champion for her entire career. One of her most notable cases came in 1975 when she emerged victorious in an equal pay case for female professors at the University of Alaska. In 1982, she was recognized by the NAACP for her civil rights work, and in 1983, she became the first black president of the National Association of Women Lawyers. She practiced law until the age of 91 and passed away in 2007 at the age of 94.
Paulette Brown
In 2015, Paulette Brown became the first black female president of the American Bar Association. During her tenure, she played a key role in developing major diversity initiatives including the drafting of an ABA House of Delegates resolution encouraging all states to require attorneys to take a mandatory continuing legal education course on the subject of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. Brown is now Senior Partner and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Locke Lorde LLP. Her decades-long legal career continues to thrive and her brilliance is matched only by her humility and grace.
Pauli Murray
Pauli Murray was a pioneer in truly every aspect. As a queer, feminist civil rights activist and co-founder of the National Organization for Women, Pauli dedicated her entire career to championing equity on behalf of women, communities of color, and the queer community. Pauli’s numerous published works opened doors and laid the groundwork for outlawing discriminatory laws nationwide. Early in life, Pauli worked tirelessly to end desegregation on public transportation and in 1940, was arrested for refusing to move to the colored section of a bus. Among her seemingly infinite accomplishments, Pauli graduated at the top of her law school class from Howard University in 1944, authored a book on states’ segregation laws that Thurgood Marshall termed the “bible for civil rights litigators,” and later became the first black person to earn a JSD from Yale Law School.
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander
Sadie Alexander was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics in the United States, and in 1927, became the first black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She was an Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia and was a civil rights advocate, working closely with the ACLU, the National Urban League, and other leading civil rights organizations. In 1947, she was appointed to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights by President Harry S. Truman and in 1978, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as chairperson of the White House Conference on Aging. Check out the University of Pennsylvania’s almanac to learn more about Sadie’s many accomplishments.
Thurgood Marshall
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.  FUN FACT: Marshall’s classmates at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania included the poet Langston Hughes.

These trailblazers truly changed the game, and we are forever grateful for the contributions of these trailblazers to both the legal profession and our entire legal justice system.


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