Black History Month: Honoring Black Lawyers, Judges and Law Professors

As Black History Month draws to a close, I’d like to take a moment to highlight some Black legal trailblazers — some of whom are likely familiar, and some you may never have heard of — and significant milestones for Black members of the legal profession in the United States, including the establishment of traditionally Black law schools.

The history of Black lawyers, judges and professors in America precedes the Civil War, but the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) and a national legacy of racism severely hampered the progress of Black men and women in the law, particularly in the South, through the twentieth century Civil Rights Movement and beyond. As a result, we continue to see historic “firsts” for Black men and women in the legal profession as late as today.

A full examination of Black Americans in the legal profession would require far more space than PAABA’s humble website can provide. This brief timeline of notable Black attorneys and legal milestones provides merely a snapshot of that long and distinguished history:

1845 – Macon Allen, first Black attorney licensed to practice law in the U.S. (Boston, MA)

1853 – John M. Langston, first Black attorney admitted to the Ohio State Bar

1865 – John Stewart Rock, first Black attorney admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court

1869 – George Lewis Ruffin, first Black graduate of Harvard Law School

1869 – John M. Langston founds Howard University Law School and serves as its first Dean

1911 – Butler R. Wilson, William Henry Lewis, and William R. Morris, first Black attorneys admitted to the American Bar Association

1922 – Walter A. Gordon, first Black graduate of Boalt Hall at U.C. Berkeley

1931 – Jane Matilda Bolin, first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School; 8 years later, she is the first Black woman appointed as a lower court judge in U.S.

1939 – North Carolina Central University School of Law is founded

1946 – Thurgood Marshall School of Law is founded at Texas Southern University

1947 – William Robert Ming, first Black full-time faculty member teaching at a predominantly white law school (University of Chicago)

1950 – William H. Hastie, first Black federal judge with a lifetime appointment (U.S. Court of Appeals for Third Circuit)

1961 – James Benton Parsons, first Black U.S. district court judge (Northern Dist. of Illinois)

1965 – Sallyanne Payton, first Black law student admitted to Stanford Law School; she is the first to earn a law degree at Stanford in 1968

1966 – Constance Motley, first Black woman to be appointed as a federal judge (Southern Dist. of NY)

1967 – Thurgood Marshall, first Black Supreme Court Justice

1977 – Wiley Manuel, first Black judge to serve on the California Supreme Court

1990 – Barack Obama, first Black student to be elected President of the Harvard Law Review

1991 – Clarence Thomas becomes the second Black Supreme Court Justice

1992 – Carol Mosely Braun is the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate

2003 – Dennis Archer, first Black President of the American Bar Association

2008 – Barack Obama, first Black President of the United States

2009 – Eric Holder, first Black United States Attorney General

2015 – Paulette Brown, first Black woman elected President of the American Bar Association

Gretchen Birkheimer
President, Palo Alto Area Bar Association 2017-2018


1 thought on “Black History Month: Honoring Black Lawyers, Judges and Law Professors

  • This is so interesting for Black History Month and for the positive strides that Black have made over time.

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