In recognition of Black History Month, we want to highlight some of the most influential African American lawyers throughout history. Some are known for their contributions to the legal practice, others for their leadership in politics, and one in particular has remained in the shadows despite having brought down one of the most notorious mob bosses in American history.
Macon Bolling Allen (1816-1894)
Alma Mater & Legal Credentials: No alma mater. Maine and Massachusetts Bar Associations.
Most Notable Achievements: He is believed to be the first ever African American to be licensed to practice law in the United States. He was also the first African American Justice of the Peace.
Inspirational Legal Contributions: He was a partner in the first known African American-owned law firm, established in Charleston, SC in 1868. His partners were William J. Whipper and Robert Brown Elliot.
Fascinating Fact: It is reported that because he couldn’t afford transportation, he walked 50 miles to take the bar exam in Worcester, MA.
Charlotte E. Ray (1850-1911)
Alma Mater & Legal Credentials: Howard University, specializing in corporate law. District of Columbia Bar Association.
Most Notable Achievements: She was the first African American female lawyer, the first female admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, and the first female to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.
Inspirational Legal Contributions: Her admission to the D.C. bar paved the way for women in other states to seek admission to their respective bars. Ray also opened her own law office before becoming active in the women’s suffrage movement and eventually returning to work as a teacher.
Fascinating Fact: It is alleged that, in order to disguise her identity as an African American woman, Ray applied to the bar under the name C.E. Ray.
Jane Bolin (1908-2007)
“I’d rather see if I can help a child than settle an argument between adults over money.”
Alma Mater & Legal Credentials: Yale Law School. New York City Bar Association.
Most Notable Achievements: She was the first African American woman to graduate from Yale Law School. She was appointed as the first female African American judge, and was the first to work in the office of the New York City corporation counsel, the city’s legal department.
Inspirational Legal Contributions: She worked as a judge in Family Court taking on domestic issues, helping neglected and orphaned children, and changing segregationist policies that assigned probation officers based on skin color and the placement of children in child-care agencies based on ethnic background.
Fascinating Fact: She chose not to wear judicial robes in order to make the children she worked with feel more comfortable.
Thurgood Marshall (1967-1991)
“Racism separates, but it never liberates. Hatred generates fear, and fear once given a foothold; binds, consumes and imprisons. Nothing is gained from prejudice. No one benefits from racism.”
Alma Mater & Legal Credentials: Howard University. Maryland Bar Association.
Most Notable Achievements: He was the first African American nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. He was also the 32nd Solicitor General of the United States Solicitor General, and judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.
Inspirational Legal Contributions: He established a legal practice in Baltimore and founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. As an attorney, he successfully argued cases in front of the Supreme Court, including Smith v. Allwright, Shelley v. Kraemer, and Brown v. Board of Education.
Fascinating Fact: He was originally born Thoroughgood Marshall but shortened his name to Thurgood.
Barack Obama (1961 – Present)
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
Alma Mater & Legal Credentials: Harvard University. Illinois Bar Association.
Most Notable Achievements: He was the first African American President of the United States (two terms), a United States Senator from Illinois, and a member of the Illinois Senate (13th district).
Inspirational Legal Contributions: He was elected the first African American President of the Harvard Law Review. He also served as the director of the Developing Communities Project, where he helped set up job training and college preparatory programs and fight for tenant rights.
Fascinating Fact: He is a two-time Grammy award winner for his spoken word albums based on his memoirs, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.
Eunice Carter (1890-1970): The One You Probably Didn’t Know About!
Alma Mater & Legal Credentials: Fordham University. New York Bar Association.
Most Notable Achievements: She may not have been the first African American lawyer, served on the Supreme Court or been elected as the President of the United States, but Eunice Carter deserves her place as one of the most noteworthy and inspirational African American lawyers in history. Why? Not only was she the first African American female to graduate from Fordham University and work as a prosecutor in New York City, she was also a major player involved in taking down Charles “Lucky” Luciano, one of the most notorious mob bosses in the United States.
Inspirational Legal Contributions: After being appointed in 1935 as a NYC prosecutor, Carter would piece together a major prostitution racketeering case that would eventually implicate Luciano, leading to his conviction and eventual deportation. But she wasn’t only responsible for putting together the case, she was also instrumental in convincing then New York District Attorney, Thomas Dewey to prosecute the case. The case was described as “a land-mark in legal history as it was the first against a major organized crime figure for anything other than tax evasion.” It would also lead to Dewey eventually being elected as Governor of New York State.
Carter would eventually enter private practice but remained active in the United Nations, the Executive Committee of the International Council of Women, and the board of the Y.W.C.A.
Fascinating Fact: Carter’s grandson, Stephen L. Carter would go on to write a book about his grandmother’s role in taking down Luciano, entitled Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.
There you have it; these are six of the most influential African American lawyers in United States history. Help us celebrate Black History Month by remembering their accomplishments and contributions to case law and the legal community as a whole.