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How Black attorneys in North Carolina have overcome hurdles throughout history

| Aug 24, 2020 | Criminal Justice |

Black attorneys have made enormous contributions to the legal profession in North Carolina. Their stories involve overcoming countless challenges in the pursuit of justice. From a pioneering group of 14 in 1890 to more than a thousand strong today, Black attorneys are part of the backbone of our justice system.

The fight for equal opportunities in the legal profession didn’t come easy. It took many decades – and many courageous leaders – to pave the way. Here’s a look at just a few of the hurdles they had to overcome from the post-Civil War era to the Civil Rights time period and beyond.

  • Post-Civil War: James Edward O’Hara became one of North Carolina’s first Black lawyers in 1873. He also had the distinction of serving as one of the state’s first Black representative to Congress, and his son Raphael was the state’s first second-generation Black lawyer. Because no law schools in North Carolina admitted Blacks at this time, Black lawyers had to earn admission to the state bar through apprenticeships. Several prominent Black lawyers also served as politicians, accomplishing much despite the many setbacks they faced.
  • Shaw University: In 1888, Shaw University in Raleigh established a law school for Black students – the first in the state. Many of North Carolina’s most distinguished Black lawyers from this period earned their law degrees at Shaw. The law school closed just before World War I, leaving North Carolina without a law school for Black students.
  • Post-Shaw: In the 1920s and 30s, aspiring Black lawyers had to seek a law school education out of state. Many attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. During this era, Black lawyers initiated groundbreaking lawsuits challenging segregation. Although those suits weren’t successful, they laid the foundations for later victories.
  • North Carolina Central University Law School: The first state-supported law school for Blacks opened in 1940. Issues with underfunding and accreditation almost led to its closure, but the school pulled through, producing numerous noteworthy graduates. It remains a preeminent institution today.
  • UNC School of Law: In 1951, six Black law students finally gained admission to the UNC School of Law following a lengthy federal court battle. (The case, ultimately decided in the students’ favor by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, was McKissick v. Carmichael.) It was the first time in North Carolina history that Blacks were permitted to attend a state-supported school alongside whites.
  • Civil Rights: Black lawyers in North Carolina played a pivotal role in supporting the Civil Rights movement nationwide. This era also saw the formation of the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers, the largest organization of Black lawyers in the state.

Despite great strides in advancing equal opportunities for Black lawyers, disparities remain. Black lawyers are drastically underrepresented in private law firms (particularly in partnership roles). Black law students graduate with more student debt than whites. Institutional inequalities undermine progress at each step of the journey toward bar admission.

It’s a long road to true equality, but it’s well worth fighting for – especially in the profession dedicated to upholding equality and justice.

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