Black History Month is a time to celebrate the cultural heritage and accomplishments that African Americans have made that are an indelible part of United States history. In celebration of Black History Month, we are featuring eleven influential 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 areas.
African American people have made, and continue to make, changes in the civil rights and legal field. Since our country's founding 246 years ago, African American people have experienced, witnessed, and suffered from the systemic racial discrimination that was and is present in aspects of our daily lives. Although one would hope that the legal field, based on basic ideas of equality and fair treatment, would be immune to such a tainted reputation, reality has failed to meet the rhetorical standard that the ideals of law have put in place.
Below, you will find eleven African American attorneys who have paved the way for generations of legal intellectuals by challenging an entire country's predetermined bias and racism.
Dating back to the 1840s, Macon Bolling Allen quit his job as a teacher in Indiana to become an apprentice to General Samuel Fessenden. Fessenden was a renowned attorney 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 man with a license to practice law in the United States. At the time, a large 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; however, he persevered, passed the examination to become a civil court judge in 1848, and became the first black judge in the country. Throughout his career, Macon continued to improve the odds of success for black lawyers for the next half-century.
Cary has a story that crosses borders, as she was not only a lawyer but also a journalist and teacher who dedicated her life to civil rights. Born in 1823, she was raised by an activist family, with her parents helping guide escaped slaves through the Underground Railroad. After attending a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania, Mary Ann taught in schools for African American students for 12 years. Later, in 1850, she moved with her family to Canada after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. Once she was outside the United States, her life course turned from teaching to journalism. She founded the first Canadian antislavery newspaper and became the first African American female editor and publisher in North America. Shortly after the Civil War, Cary moved back to the United States, specifically Washington, D.C., where she earned her law degree from Howard University. Although there is not much information on her legal career, she is known for her diligent 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.
During the same time that Allen was paving the wave for black men in the legal field, Charlotte E. Ray started her journey as a young girl in the Biggle Apple. 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 enrolled at Howard University, a historically black college in New York, where she studied education. However, her real dream was to be an attorney, so she began studying law. In 1872, she became the first black female to earn a law degree and establish an independent commercial law practice in the United States. Although she was praised for her rhetoric and comprehensive legal knowledge and admired as “one of the best lawyers on corporations in the country,” she found it hard to keep a steady clientele. Because of this, Charlotte returned to teaching; however, she remained active in advancing women’s suffrage and continued to fight for equal treatment for women of color.
Born in 1858 in Nashville, TN, Ferdinand Lee Barnett and his family fled to Canada just before the Civil War. After the Civil War ended, his family settled in Chicago, IL, where he eventually attended Northwestern Law School. After graduating, Barnett went on to be only the third Black lawyer admitted to the Illinois bar. Barnett was also an activist, writer, and editor and is known for being the first editor and founder of Chicago’s first Black newspaper, the Chicago Conservator. After some time, he decided to fully devote his career to law and sold the Chicago Conservator to anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells (who he later married). Barnett served as the assistant state’s attorney 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 fought for and won a case before the Illinois Supreme Court. His combined careers in journalism and law truly displayed his commitment to justice and racial equality.
Known as “the man who killed Jim Crow,” Charles Houston started his career as an English professor. However, due to the blatant racism he experienced while serving in the U.S. Infantry during World War I, he made the decision to study law and use his time fighting for men who could not fight back. Mr. Houston enrolled 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 earned his Juris Doctor degree and joined the Washington D.C. bar in 1924. Later in his law career, he became dean of Howard University School of Law and made that institution the top training center for civil rights activists pursuing law. During this time, he served as the first special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In this role, Houston was involved in nearly 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 expensive than creating “separate but equal” schools.
Born in Baltimore, MD, Marshall was one of Charles Hamilton Houston’s top 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 for other black students, given the same denial 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 office, 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.
Born in Poughkeepsie, NY, in 1908, Bolin’s father was a very successful lawyer. Following in Charlotte E. Ray and her father’s footsteps, Jane attended Wellesley College, where her advisor tried to convince her she should not apply to Yale Law School because black women would neither be accepted nor succeed there. However, she was determined to prove that narrative wrong, so she applied anyway. Fortunately, Yale accepted her, and she was the only African American in her class. She graduated in 1931, passed the New York City Bar exam, and began practicing law in 1932. Just seven years into her career, Bolin became the first female United States judge when she was appointed to the New York Domestic Relations Court (now known as Family Court). Bolin spent the next four decades there fighting racial discrimination, working tirelessly to end segregation in child placement centers and probation assignments, and advocating for children’s rights.
Jordan grew up in Houston’s Fifth Ward, where she was known for many distinctive qualities–her speaking ability, ambition, charisma, and even her size. Following her dream of being an attorney, Jordan applied to the University of Texas at Austin but 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 told her she wasn’t good enough to compete; however, she graciously defied him by later leading the TSU debate team 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 woman 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 memorial service. Soon after, she became the first woman elected 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. During her career as a Congresswoman, Barbara had her hands in over 300 pieces of legislation, many of which still stand. After retiring, she chaired the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform after being appointed by former President Clinton.
Motley was an unexpected civil rights hero. Growing up near Yale University, Constance was almost totally unaware of black history as a young person and did not personally experience blatant racism until later in high school. However, at 15 years old, 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, and that focused her attention on civil rights and the underrepresentation of black lawyers. These classes inspired her desire to practice law; however, she did not have the means to attend 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 community center. With this financial help, Baker Motley was able to attend college, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in economics in 1943. Constance received her Bachelor of Laws at Columbia Law School just three years later. During her legal career, 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 woman 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.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, it wasn’t until late middle school that Johnnie found his passion for debate after realizing he was more interested in words and language rather than numbers. While his parents had always thought he would be a doctor or research scientist, young Johnnie always knew he wanted to be an attorney. However, unbeknownst to Johnnie, his father 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 originally supposed to attend. After high school, Johnnie went on to attend UCLA for his undergraduate degree and then received his law degree from Loyola Law School in 1962. Shortly after graduating, Cochran Jr. worked briefly as a city attorney in Los Angeles’ criminal division before starting his own firm. Once he started his own firm, Cochran Jr.’s first big case was representing a Black widow who sued multiple police officers who had shot and killed her husband. During his career, Mr. Johnnie Cochran, Jr. protected and fought for many Black people from the police brutality and abuse they often faced.
Mr. Gray is most famously known for the vital role he played in the successful desegregation of Montgomery buses, both as legal counsel and as a strategist. After high school, Gray attended Alabama State College for Negroes where he received his bachelor's degree in 1951. Despite his plans to become a historian and preacher, Mr. Gray moved to Ohio after being encouraged to apply to law school by one of his teachers. 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. Shortly after graduating from law school, Gray defended 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 one of the first two African Americans public officials to ever serve in the legislature since the Reconstruction era. In 1979, Fred was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama by former President Jimmy Carter; however, he was forced to withdraw his name due to the massive opposition from conservative political opponents. During his career, Gray also worked alongside and defended Martin Luther King Jr. and was a member of the Alabama House of Representatives until 2015.
The fight for social justice that was promoted during the civil rights movement still continues today. While Black Americans have gained certain rights under the law, they are still poorly and disproportionately affected by many laws and suggested biases. Unfortunately, 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 provide equality, the American legal system must 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 made up the mainstay of a country that was founded on principles of freedom from which they were explicitly excluded for too long. This Black History Month, we acknowledge only a fraction of the contributions African American attorneys 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.
Johnnie Cochran had long dreamed of creating a national law firm of men and women from all races, religions, creeds, and backgrounds to show how well we could all work together to make the world a better place. When Mr. Cochran started The Cochran Firm, his mission was “a journey to justice.” Today, with more than 35 offices across more than 20 states, the attorneys at The Cochran Firm work every day to fulfill that dream and continue that mission by working for our clients with the same work ethic and dedication to justice exemplified by Mr. Johnnie Cochran himself.
The Cochran Firm is a diverse group of highly skilled and experienced lawyers that are dedicated to bringing high-quality representation to injured people and their families. Our experienced attorneys at The Cochran Firm are among the nation’s most recognized and successful attorneys in the country. When navigating through the legal process, you deserve to have an experienced attorney by your side. Our attorneys at The Cochran Firm know how to fight for you.
Here at The Cochran Firm, each of our attorneys is ready to help victims receive the maximum compensation and financial recovery for all of their pain and suffering. Our attorneys work closely with each of our clients using pooled resources and their access to legal expertise to ensure the most effective legal representation available is provided.
You need the help of an experienced attorney who has proven successful results in other similar cases to guide you through the process and help you to receive the monetary damages you are entitled to under the law. The Cochran Firm’s results have been well documented and demonstrated both in the courtroom and at settlement conferences. At The Cochran Firm, we have the offices, the experience, the results, and the resources to aid clients throughout the United States.
If you’re looking for an experienced attorney to help you pursue justice for your legal matter, please contact our attorneys at The Cochran Firm today for your free, no-obligation initial consultation today. We serve the entire country with offices in many major U.S. cities.
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