As Black History Month 2021 draws to a conclusion, we shine a spotlight on Black attorneys who have helped shape the landscape of American law. Without their brilliance and courage, advances such as the Illinois Criminal Justice and Police Reforms Bill would not be possible. Out of gratitude and with the desire to make their names known to all, we now take a look back on three pioneering African American lawyers.
Surpassing the impossible
Born a free African American in 1816, Macon Bolling Allen sought the impossible and through sheer audacity surpassed his aims. His goal: becoming the nation’s first licensed Black attorney. He passed the bar examination in 1844, achieving his life’s dream, but this proved only the beginning of his struggle as racial attitudes hampered his ability to find work.
His intelligence, character and resilience could not be deterred, however, as he took the next unprecedented step of taking the exam to become a Justice of the Peace for Middlesex County in Massachusetts. Upon his appointment, the first African American lawyer also became the first to hold judicial office.
Breaking two barriers
In her quest to become the nation’s first African American woman attorney, Charlotte E. Ray faced twin barriers in the forms of racism and sexism. The name on her application to Howard University read C.E. Ray, a necessary ambiguity to hide her gender from officials who would deny her on that ground alone.
Neither sexism nor racism would deter her, however, as she went on to teach and practice law, and become the first American woman of any race admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. After a career in teaching and in law, she went on to become active in the women’s suffrage movement.
nine ten of ten cases
For nearly 200 years of our nation’s history, no African American woman had ever risen to the federal judiciary. In 1966, Constance Baker Motley shattered this glass ceiling and never looked back. After a wildly successful legal career, she moved into politics and became the first African American woman to hold the position of state senator in New York. Her success as an attorney may remain her crowning achievement. In her role as counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, she won nine out of ten cases. The one case she lost was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court.
Standing on broad shoulders
Today’s Black attorneys face opportunities these pioneers may only have dreamed of, but they also face challenges that must be met with the same spirit of progress. In Illinois, the Criminal Justice and Police Reforms Bill promises to right wrongs that generations of African Americans have suffered under, but the crucial battles are yet to play out in courtrooms in Chicago and throughout the state. We are prepared for the struggles to come, and will continue to draw inspiration from these pioneers whose broad shoulders we stand upon.