Black History Month is a time to honor and celebrate the profound contributions of Black individuals throughout history. In this blog, we will shine a spotlight on eight important Black historical figures in law, whose legacies continue to inspire and empower us today. These remarkable figures have tirelessly worked to break down barriers, challenge injustice, and shape the course of legal history. From groundbreaking Supreme Court justices to tireless civil rights attorneys, they have left an indelible mark on our legal system, promoting equality and justice for all.
Hon. William H. Hastie
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1904, Honorable William H. Hastie became the first African American federal judge in 1937 when he was appointed to the District Court of the Virgin Islands. Not only was he a prominent jurist, but Hastie also served as the Governor of the United States Virgin Islands and as the Dean of Howard University Law School.
While serving in WWII as a civilian aide to the U.S. Secretary of War, Hastie advocated for the equal treatment of Black Americans in the U.S. Army. He eventually resigned his position in protest against racial segregation and inequality in the U.S. Army Air Forces.
These groundbreaking achievements paved the way for more opportunities for Black attorneys and judges in the legal system. His tireless advocacy for civil rights and his commitment to justice has left an indelible mark on American history.
Click here to read the transcript of an Oral History Interview with Hastie conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library.
Born on February 21, 1936 in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, Barbara Jordan was a prominent leader in the Civil Rights Movement. She is famous for her eloquent opening statement at the House Judiciary Committee hearings during the impeachment of President Nixon.
Barbara’s prolific career included many milestones. She was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and was the first Southern Black woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1976, Barbara was the first African American and the first woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
For her exemplary service to the nation, Barbara Jordan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1994.
Read more about Jordan here.
Hon. Macon Bolling Allen
Macon Bolling Allen is believed to be the first licensed and practicing African American lawyer to argue before a jury and the first African American Justice of the Peace. A native of Indiana, Allen moved to Maine to work as an apprentice to Samuel Fessenden, a local abolitionist and attorney.
In 1844, Fessenden wrote to his law partner proclaiming the news of Allen’s successful bar examination despite being met with resistance by a hostile examination committee. Allen became the nation’s first African American lawyer.
Allen experienced difficulty finding legal work in Maine and relocated to Boston, where he would be admitted to the bar there in 1845. He conducted a jury trial in October 1845 that is believed to be the first time an African American lawyer argued before a jury in the United States.
He later became the Massachusetts Justice of the Peace in 1847. After the Civil War, he moved to South Carolina, alongside fellow attorneys William J. Whipper and Robert Brown Elliot. Here, the men established the first known African American Law Firm called Whipper, Elliot, & Allen.
Allen was elected as a judge in 1873 and later again in 1876. Later in life, Allen relocated to Washington, D.C., where he practiced law at a firm called the Land and Improvement Association until his death in 1894.
Read more about Allen here.
Charlotte E. Ray
Charlotte E Ray is recognized as the first Black American female lawyer in the United States. She was also the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia Bar and the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.
Ray’s education was paramount to her father Reverend Charles Bennett Ray, an important figure in the abolitionist movement, and she and her siblings were ensured a quality college education. While teaching at Howard University, Ray completed a three-year law program on February 27, 1872, as the first woman to graduate from the Howard University School of Law.
Ray began her independent practice of commercial law in 1872, advertising in newspapers such as the New National Era and Citizen, owned by Frederick Douglass.
Ray was said to be eloquent, authoritative, and one of the best corporate lawyers in the country. Yet despite her Howard connections and advertisements, she was unable to maintain a steady client flow sufficient to support herself. Regardless of her legal knowledge and corporate law expertise, not enough people were willing to trust a black woman with their cases. Instead, she returned to teaching, working in the Brooklyn school system.
She was honored posthumously by the Northeastern School of Law in March 2006 for her achievement as the first female African-American attorney.
Read more about Ray here.
Charles H. Houston
Charles Hamilton Houston served as Dean of Howard University Law School, was the NAACP’s first special counsel, and mentored a generation of Black attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall, future founder and director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the first Black Supreme Court Justice.
His significant work in dismantling Jim Crow laws earned him the title “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.” Additionally, when the American Bar Association denied admission to Black lawyers, he helped in the founding of the National Bar Association.
Upon his return to the U.S. in 1919 after serving in the U.S. Army, he entered Harvard Law School. He was the first black student elected to the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review and graduated cum laude.
In addition to fighting the exclusion of African Americans from juries in the South, Houston worked to dismantle the “separate but equal” theory. By challenging districts to either integrate or equally fund Black schools, Houston exposed the inequality in the facilities, education, and funding of separated schools. After his death, Houston’s efforts to dismantle the “separate but equal” theory culminated in Brown v. Board of Education.
Among his many honors, in September 2023 the historic Loudoun County courthouse, where Houston led a landmark case in civil rights in 1932, was officially named the Charles Hamilton Houston Courthouse.
Read more about Houston here.
Pauli Murray was a civil rights activist, legal scholar, feminist, poet, Episcopal priest, and women’s rights activist. Murray graduated first in their class at Howard University but was denied entry to Harvard University on the basis of gender. Murray was the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School.
Murray’s book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, was considered by Thurgood Marshall as the “Bible” for civil rights litigators. President Kennedy appointed them to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, which advised the president on women’s issues.
Murray co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966. Ruth Bader Ginsburg recognized Murray’s pioneering work on gender discrimination by naming them a coauthor of a brief on Reed v. Reed, a groundbreaking case where the Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment protects against differential treatment based on sex.
Read more about Murray here.
Hon. Constance Baker Motley
Constance Baker Motley was an American jurist and politician who served as a Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Motley served as a key strategist in the civil rights movement, clerked for Thurgood Marshall, argued ten landmark civil rights cases before the Supreme Court, and won 9 of those cases. She was a law clerk to Thurgood Marshall, aiding him in the case Brown v. Board of Education.
She was the first Black woman to serve as a state senator in New York, argue before the Supreme Court, and be appointed to the federal judiciary.
As a federal judge, she presided over a landmark case for women lawyers, Blank v. Sullivan & Cromwell, in which the plaintiffs accused the law firms of sex discrimination. Additionally, in Ludtke v. Kuhn, her ruling created a breakthrough for women in sports broadcasting as it allowed female reporters into Major League Baseball locker rooms.
Read more about Motley here.
Hon. Jane Bolin
Jane Matilda Bolin was the first African American female judge in the United States, serving on New York’s family court for four decades. She was the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, the first to join the New York City Bar Association, and the first to join the New York City Law Department.
On July 22, 1939, 31-year-old Bolin was appointed judge of the Domestic Relations Court. For twenty years, she was the only black female judge in the country. She remained a court judge, renamed the Family Court in 1962, for 40 years, with her appointment being renewed three times until she was required to retire at age 70.
Bolin tirelessly sought to encourage racially integrated child services and ensured that public childcare agencies did not discriminate by race. As an activist for children’s rights and education, Bolin served on the boards of the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Child Welfare League.
After a life of groundbreaking achievements, Jane Bolin died on January 8, 2007, at the age of 98.
Read more about Bolin here.