Certain names stand as symbols of progress in the legal field.
Let’s celebrate the legacy of African American legal professionals whose contributions to legal history have paved the way for firms like ours to champion the rights of our clients. Learn the answers to questions like:
- Who was the First Black Lawyer in Massachusetts?
- Who was the First Black Female Lawyer in Massachusetts?
- Who was the First Black Lawyer in the United States?
- Who was the First Black Female Lawyer in the United States?
- Who was the First Black Judge in Massachusetts?
- Who was the First Black Female Judge in Massachusetts?
- Who was the First Black Judge in the United States?
- Who was the First Black Female Judge in the United States?
- Who was the First Black United States Supreme Court Justice?
- Who was the First Black Female United States Supreme Court Justice?
Who was Macon Bolling Allen?
In 1845, Macon Bolling Allen became the first Black person admitted to the bar in Massachusetts. However, it wasn’t even the first place he was admitted to practice law. Allen became the first lawyer in United States History a year earlier when he passed the bar in Maine.
After befriending General Samuel Fessenden, who was an anti-slavery leader of the time, Allen became an apprentice and law clerk. Eventually, Fessenden told the Portland District Court he thought Allen should be able to practice as a lawyer. The idea was refused because Allen didn’t meet citizenship requirements.
However, Maine law states that anyone “of good moral character” could be admitted to the bar. Passing the bar made Allen a citizen of Maine and he was granted his license to practice law.
A year after passing the Maine bar, Allen did the same in Massachusetts and continued his trailblazing ways by opening the first African American owned law firm in United States history alongside Robert Morris.
In 1847, Allen continued his ascent when he was appointed a justice of the peace by the governor of Massachusetts. He is considered by some to be the first Black judge in the history of the United States.
In 1868, Allen moved to Charleston, South Carolina and starting the state’s first African American law firm alongside Robert Brown Elliot and William J Whipper.
Who was Blanche E. Braxton?
It took another 78 years before a Black woman became the first lawyer in Massachusetts state history. Blanche E. Braxton was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1923, becoming the first Black woman to do so.
However, she wasn’t done. In 1933, Braxton was the first Black woman admitted to practice in the US District Court in Massachusetts.
Who was Charlotte E. Ray?
In 1872, Charlotte E. Ray graduated from Howard University Law School and passed the bar exam becoming the first Black female lawyer in the United States. At the time, women weren’t allowed to take the bar exam in the district of Columbia, so she applied as C.E. Ray.
Because of this, she not only became the first Black female lawyer in the country, but also the first practicing female attorney in Washington D.C.
Who was George Lewis Ruffin?
Before being accepted at Harvard Law School in 1869, George Lewis Ruffin worked as a barber. But after getting into and eventually becoming the first Black person to graduate from Harvard Law, Ruffin would pass the bar exam, and work as a lawyer in Massachusetts for several years.
In 1883, Ruffin was appointed as a judge on the Charleston Municipal Court, making him the first Black judge in Massachusetts history.
In addition, in 1876, Ruffin was elected to the Boston Common Council, the first Black person to win a seat in state history.
Who is Margaret Burnham?
After receiving her degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Margaret Burnham worked as a staff attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, in New York City from 1969 to 1972. From there, she moved to Boston and got her Massachusetts license to practice.
After working as a public defender and then establishing the law firm of Burnham, Stern & Shapiro she became the first Black woman to be named a judge in Massachusetts when Governor Michael Dukakis appointed her as an associate justice to the Boston Municipal Court Bench.
Who was Wentworth Cheswell?
Some of the history of early Black legal professionals in Massachusetts and across the country can be hard to determine specifically. It’s often difficult for Black Americans to track their ancestry prior to the 1870 census because a lot of information and history is recorded poorly or lost, especially for those whose ancestors were enslaved.
For example, it is believed that Wentworth Cheswell, who was one of the first Black people elected to public office in United States history when he was elected Constable of Newmarket, New Hampshire, in 1768, was the first Black judge in US history.
Cheswell, who rode with Paul Revere before the Revolutionary War, was appointed a justice of the peace in 1805. However, Macon Bolling Allen is sometimes credited with being the first when he was appointed in 1847.
One fact we do know for sure is that in 1937, William Henry Hastie Jr. was the first Black person appointed as a Federal District Court Judge in US History when he was named to the position for the federal district court of the Virgin Islands by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The first female Black federal judge was Constance Baker Motley, appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966.
Before becoming a judge, Motely was already the first black female attorney to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2024, The United States Postal Service featured Motely as the 47th honoree in the Black Heritage stamp series due to her work as a civil rights pioneer and judiciary trailblazer,
Who was Jane Bolin?
The first Black female judge in the United States wouldn’t be appointed until 1939, when Jane Bolin was named to the New York City Domestic Relations Court by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in 1939.
Bolin graduated from Wellesley University for her undergraduate degree in 1928 and was then one of three women in her Yale class. When she graduated with her Law Degree in 1931, she was the first Black woman to ever graduate from Yale Law School.
After Yale, Bolin continued shattering glass ceilings when she became the first Black woman to work as the New York City assistant corporate counsel before being sworn in as a judge in 1939.
Who was Thurgood Marshall?
Thurgood Marshall was one of the most influential and important legal figures in the history of the United States. As an attorney in the 1940s and 1950s, Marshall argued 32 cases against the U.S. Supreme Court, winning 29 of them. Among many notable case results, Marshall won the Brown vs. Board of Education case that ended racial segregation in United States Schools.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the US Court of Appeals. In 1965, he was named US Solicitor General by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1967, Johnson appointed Marshall as the first Black Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He would serve until 1991.
Who is Ketanji Brown-Jackson?
In 2022, Ketanji Brown-Jackson was appointed the first Black female Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court by President Joe Biden in 2022. Prior to her nomination, Jackson served on the US District Court for the District of Columbia from 2013-2021 before Biden appointed her to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2021.
After she graduated from Harvard Law School, Jackson served as a public defender, on the US Sentencing Commission and as a clerk for Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
It is important to reflect upon and honor our history, and Grupo Jurídico Keches wouldn’t be in the position to help our clients the way we are without these groundbreaking individuals.
Their courage and perseverance paved the way for a more inclusive and just legal system and Lei Keches aims to emulate their dedication to client advocacy and pursuit of justice.