It’s Black history month, and with all that has happened in the past year, now is a better time than ever to explore some of the pioneers who made waves in American history.
In the legal profession, those trailblazers include the first two Black attorneys, both of whom faced numerous challenges and overcame hurdles to pave the way for others in the decades that followed.
The first Black female attorney: Charlotte E. Ray
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1850, Charlotte Ray hailed from an abolitionist family. Her father ran a prominent civil rights newspaper.
Charlotte was the first woman to graduate from Howard University School of Law in 1872. She gained admission to the D.C. bar and began her own law practice shortly thereafter. She reportedly applied to the bar using the name “C.E. Ray” to avoid disclosing her gender.
Ms. Ray was the first woman to appear in a D.C. Supreme Court, representing an impoverished white woman who was seeking a divorce due to domestic abuse. However, her practice largely focused on commercial and real estate law, and she was widely regarded as an authority on corporate law.
Continually struggling to attract enough business to keep her law practice afloat, Ms. Ray eventually gave up law and moved to New York, where she became a school teacher. She remained active in the women’s suffrage movement and the National Association of Colored Women.
Her sister, Henrietta Cordelia Ray, was a prominent Black poet.
The first Black male attorney: Macon Bolling Allen
Mr. Allen was first licensed in Maine in 1844. After struggling to find enough business in that predominantly white state, he moved to Massachusetts, where he was admitted to the bar in 1945. He became the first Black lawyer to argue before an American jury that same year.
In 1847, Mr. Allen became the first black judge in the United States – a significant achievement, considering he wasn’t even a U.S. citizen under the constitution at that time. As a justice of the peace, he oversaw small claims and minor crimes.
Following the Civil War, Mr. Allen moved to South Carolina, where he opened a law office with several other Black attorneys. It was the first known Black-owned law firm in the United States. He went on to become a criminal court and probate judge.
Looking back, looking ahead
Racial justice has come a long way since these two pioneers joined the legal profession. However, we still have a long ways to go. Black attorneys and aspiring lawyers continue to face challenges today, from gaps in education to cultural prejudices to institutional racism.