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Black History Month Spotlight: 12 Trailblazing African American Lawyers

This Black History Month, we’re highlighting 12 trailblazing African American lawyers whose advocacy, resilience, and groundbreaking achievements have not only challenged systemic injustices but have also paved the way for generations to come. Join us as we honor their unwavering dedication to the pursuit of equality, their pivotal role in shaping the legal landscape, and their enduring impact on society.


Macon Bolling Allen was the first African American licensed to practice law in the United States, gaining admission to the Maine bar in 1844. His legal career was marked by several milestones, including becoming the first African American to hold a judicial position when he was appointed as a Justice of the Peace in Massachusetts in 1848. Later, in 1865, he became the first African American to be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. Allen's achievements not only broke racial barriers in the legal profession but also paved the way for future generations of African American lawyers and judges.


Born in the slave state of Delaware in 1823, Mary Ann Shadd Cary was the first Black woman publisher in North America. Her paper, "The Provincial Freeman," advocated for abolition, education, and civil rights. She was also the first woman published in Canada. In 1850, she became the first Black woman to earn a law degree in the United States and the second woman overall. Cary used her legal training to advocate for the rights of African Americans and women, particularly in her work as a teacher, journalist, and activist.


Charlotte E. Ray became the first African American woman lawyer in the United States when she was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar in 1872. Her legal career was marked by several milestones, including her graduation from Howard University School of Law in 1872, where she faced discrimination as one of the few women and African Americans in her class. Despite these challenges, Ray persisted in her pursuit of legal excellence, blazing a trail for future African American lawyers and women.


Jane Bolin became the first African American female judge in the United States when she was appointed to the bench of the New York City Domestic Relations Court in 1939 by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Throughout her career, Bolin advocated for children and families, working to ensure fair treatment and access to justice for all. She served on the bench with distinction for over 40 years, breaking racial and gender barriers in the legal profession and leaving a lasting legacy of courage and dedication to equality.


Thurgood Marshall was renowned for his pioneering achievements in the realm of civil rights and jurisprudence. As a lawyer, Marshall played a pivotal role in dismantling racial segregation and inequality through his strategic litigation efforts. Notably, he successfully argued the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court in 1954, leading to the historic decision that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Prior to his appointment as the first African American justice on the Supreme Court in 1967, Marshall served as the chief counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he litigated numerous cases challenging segregation and discrimination.


Constance Baker Motley broke barriers when she became the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge. Before her judicial appointment, Motley distinguished herself as a civil rights attorney, playing a crucial role in numerous landmark cases during the civil rights movement. She was instrumental in crafting legal strategies and arguing cases before the Supreme Court, including Meredith v. Fair and Brown v. Board of Education.


Fred Gray fearlessly litigated groundbreaking cases that challenged segregation and discrimination in the Jim Crow South. He represented Rosa Parks in the Montgomery Bus Boycott case, which catalyzed the civil rights movement. Gray also played a crucial role in litigating the landmark case of Browder v. Gayle, which ultimately led to the desegregation of public transportation in Alabama. His legal victories not only reshaped the legal field but also served as catalysts for social change in the pursuit of civil rights and equality for all.


As the first African American woman to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction and the first African American woman from the South elected to the United States House of Representatives, Barbara Jordan broke down racial and gender barriers in politics and law. Throughout her career, she championed civil rights, voting rights, and social justice causes. Jordan gained national prominence for her eloquent and impassioned speech during the Watergate hearings, where she upheld the rule of law and the Constitution.


Clarence Thomas became the second African American Supreme Court Justice in 1991. Throughout his career, Thomas has been recognized for his conservative judicial philosophy and commitment to originalism. Prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court, Thomas served as the Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he worked to enforce laws prohibiting workplace discrimination. As a Supreme Court justice, Thomas has authored a multitude of opinions that have shaped American jurisprudence, particularly in areas such as civil rights, constitutional law, and administrative law.


Eric Holder Jr. became the first African American Attorney General of the United States under President Barack Obama's administration. Holder's leadership at the Department of Justice was characterized by his commitment to upholding the rule of law, protecting civil rights, and promoting criminal justice reform. During his tenure, Holder worked to address issues such as voting rights, police misconduct, and national security, earning praise for his efforts to advance equality and fairness within the legal system. Holder also played a key role in the prosecution of terrorism cases and the successful litigation of landmark civil rights cases.


Loretta Lynch notably became the first African American woman to serve as Attorney General of the United States. Throughout her career, Lynch has been recognized for her steadfast commitment to upholding the rule of law, promoting civil rights, and combating injustice. As Attorney General, she played a pivotal role in addressing issues such as criminal justice reform, voting rights, and police-community relations. Lynch's leadership was characterized by her efforts to enhance trust in law enforcement and promote accountability, exemplified by her oversight of high-profile investigations and prosecutions.


Before he became the first African American President of the United States, Barack Obama had already begun breaking barriers. He demonstrated his legal acumen early in his career by becoming the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. Obama's work as a civil rights attorney and community organizer in Chicago underscored his commitment to fighting discrimination and advocating for marginalized communities. In his tenure as a state senator in Illinois, Obama championed legislation on ethics reform, healthcare, and education. As the 44th President of the United States, Obama signed landmark legislation such as the Affordable Care Act, which expanded healthcare coverage to millions. He also made historic judicial appointments, including nominating two justices to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.