Black History Month: A celebration of notable black lawyers in the USA
Some of the most brilliant legal minds ever to have graced US courtrooms are of African American descent. Throughout the generations, black lawyers have made significant and impactful contributions to the US legal system.
In this piece, we highlight and celebrate just a few of the most prominent and notable black lawyers in the USA.
Black Lawyers Who Broke Down Barriers and Made History
1. Macon Bolling Allen
Born: 1816 (estimated)
About: Became the first black lawyer licensed in the United States, paving the way for other African-Americans aspiring to uphold and shape the law while ensuring justice for all prevails.
2. Mary Ann Shadd Cary
About: A teacher, journalist and lawyer, Mary devoted her life to the civil rights movement. After moving to Canada due to the Fugitive Slave Law, her father became the first black man to hold a political position in the country. While in Canada, Mary launched the first anti-slavery newspaper (The Provincial Freedom), making her the first black female publisher and editor in all of North America. During the aftermath of the Civil War, Mary packed her bags and moved to Washington DC where she pursued and earned her law degree from Howard University.
3. Charlotte E. Ray
From: New York
About: A pioneer in her field, Charlotte E. Ray became the first female lawyer in the United States. Working her way through law school as a teacher, Charlotte would go on to graduate from Howard University with a law degree, after which she was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar. But Charlotte didn’t stop there. Next on her horizon was the launch of her own law firm, and although challenges surrounding prejudice at the time played a role in her firm’s eventual closure, this ‘first’ was an amazing feat.
4. Jane Bolin
From: New York
About: Arguably one of Yale University’s most notable alumni, Bolin was the first black woman to graduate from the famed University’s law school. With degree in hand, Bolin charged full speed ahead, becoming the first black woman to become part of the New York City Bar Association. Breaking down barriers throughout her storied career, in 1939 she became the first black woman to become a judge in the United States.
5. Thurgood Marshall
About: Growing up in segregation, Marshall aspired to more. After graduating from Lincoln University, he pursued a law degree from Howard University, graduating valedictorian in 1933. Following a successful law career, during retirement, Marshall went on to found the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, as well as arguing several cases in front of the US Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education. Years later he was appointed as a federal judge, and went on to become the first black associate justice appointed to the US Supreme Court.
6. Fred Gray
About: Raised in segregation, Gray went on to earn his Juris Doctorate from Case Western Reserve University before opening up his own law firm in Montgomery, Alabama. While in practice, his most notable clients included the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin. Gray is considered to have been instrumental in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
7. Clarence Thomas
About: After graduating from Yale Law School, Thomas went on to become assistant to the Attorney General of Missouri. In 1981 he was appointed by Ronald Regan to serve as the assistant secretary of civil rights within the U.S. Department of Education. Thomas is the second black American to serve on the Supreme Court, and is currently the most senior associate justice in the US.
8. Eric Holder Jr.
From: New York
About: The longest-serving US Attorney General, and the first black American to hold this position. He served as the 82nd attorney general from 2009-2015, under the Obama administration.
9. Paulette Brown
About: Became the first black female president of the American Bar Association (ABA), working her way up from the “Young Lawyers Division” in 1976.
10. Loretta Lynch
From: North Carolina
About: After graduating from Harvard University’s Law School, Lynch went on to open a private practice, later pursuing and being nominated the office of U.S. Attorney General by Barack Obama.