February presents a valuable opportunity to step back and celebrate the many pioneers in Black History. In the legal profession, those pioneers are numerous. From the first Black attorneys to the first Black president to the first Black (and first female) vice president, all are worthy of recognition.
Here are few of those who helped pave the way.
1. Mary Ann Shadd – abolitionist lawyer and publisher
Coming from a family that was involved in the Underground Railroad, it’s no surprise that Shadd became a prominent force in the anti-slavery movement. She was a lawyer (the second Black woman in the U.S. to earn a law degree), teacher, journalist and the first Black female publisher in the U.S. Her newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, advocated for freedom and feminism.
2. Thurgood Marshall – first Black Supreme Court justice
Best known as the first Black Supreme Court justice, Marshall was also a prominent civil rights attorney. He successfully argued numerous landmark cases before the Supreme Court – including Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned racial segregation in public education. During his SCOTUS tenure, Marshall helped advance individual rights through a number of groundbreaking decisions.
3. Jane Bolin – first female Black judge
Holding the distinction of being the first female Black judge in the United States, Bolin served on the family court in New York for 40 years. She dismantled several racist policies in the court system at that time. She was known for her humanity in handling difficult cases. When children were in court, for example, she didn’t wear robes in order to avoid intimidating them.
4. Fred Gray – prominent Civil Rights lawyer
A colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., Gray was a prominent civil rights activist. He defended Rosa Parks against disorderly conduct charges and represented plaintiffs in the Tuskegee syphilis study case. He was also one of the first Black lawmakers elected to the Alabama Legislature post-Reconstruction.
5. Constance Baker Motley – first Black female federal judge
Baker Motley made a name for herself as both the first female lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the first Black woman on the federal judiciary. Prior to joining the bench, she was involved in several landmark civil rights cases, including drafting the original complaint for Brown v. Board of Education. She later became the first Black female legislator in the New York Senate.
6. James Weldon Johnson – lawyer and Harlem Renaissance man
With a wildly prolific career, Johnson wasn’t just a lawyer, but also a teacher, civil rights activist, professor, poet, editor, author, literary critic and leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His legal work included investigating lynchings and pressing for the perpetrators to be held accountable. He campaigned in favor of the federal Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. Johnson also served as the first executive secretary for the NAACP.
These are just a few of the countless pioneers who overcome nearly insurmountable hurdles on the long and brutal road to racial equality.