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7 African Americans Who Made an Impact in the Law

barack obama
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on January 31, 2019 11:05 AM

February is Black History Month, and we thought it was the perfect time to reflect on the impact that African American lawyers have had on the nation's legal landscape. It is a history that predates the Civil War and extends to one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation today.

There is no way to encompass all the myriad contributions black lawyers have made to our legal history in the past 175 years, but here are seven African American lawyers who have had an especially pronounced impact.

1. Macon Bolling Allen

Largely cited as the first black lawyer in the United States, Macon Allen passed the Maine bar exam in 1844, and became a Justice of the Peace for Middlesex County, Massachusetts in 1848, before he was even considered a U.S. citizen under the Constitution. Allen went on to open a law office in Charleston, South Carolina after the Civil War, and after Reconstruction, Allen moved to Washington, D.C., working as an attorney in 1873 for the Land and Improvement Association.

2. Charlotte E. Ray

Ray was the first African American female lawyer in American history, and the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, graduating from Howard University School of Law and being admitted to the District of Columbia Bar in 1872. Despite being recognized as "one of the best lawyers on corporations in the country" at the time, her independent law practice struggled to find clients willing to entrust their cases to a black woman.

3. Charles Hamilton Houston

"The Man Who Killed Jim Crow" was also the man who mentored a generation of African American attorneys, like Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill. Charles H. Houston, the son of a lawyer, joined the U.S. Army in 1917, when it was still segregated, and that experience was transformative for his legal career. "The hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them," Houston said. "I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back."

Houston served as the first special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and is perhaps most famous for his attacks on the "separate but equal doctrine" from Plessy v. Ferguson, demonstrating the inherent inequality of separation.

4. Thurgood Marshall

Marshall was the first African American Supreme Court Justice, serving 24 years on the bench from 1967 to 1991. Marshall went to college with poet Langston Hughes and musician Cab Calloway, then graduated first in his class from Howard University School of Law, where Charles Hamilton Houston was then the dean. He founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, arguing several civil rights cases in the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education.

On the Court, Marshall was a diligent defender of individual rights, once describing his legal philosophy: "You do what you think is right and let the law catch up." Marshall also mentored current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

5. Johnnie Cochran

Yes, he got O.J. acquitted. But Cochran's most famous case was a continuation of protecting African Americans in Los Angeles from police brutality and abuse. After graduating from Loyola Law School in 1962 and working briefly as a city attorney in L.A.'s criminal division, Cochran's first big case for his own firm was representing an African-American widow who sued several police officers who had shot and killed her husband, Leonard Deadwyler. Though he ultimately lost the case, Cochran wrote in "The American Lawyer":

"[T]hose were extremely difficult cases to win in those days. But what Deadwyler confirmed for me was that this issue of police abuse really galvanized the minority community. It taught me that these cases could really get attention."

As Cochran was fond of saying, he worked "not only for the OJs, but also the No Js."

6. Anita Hill

While Hill might best be known for her confirmation hearing testimony regarding sexual harassment by future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, we cannot ignore her other contributions to law.

Hill also worked in the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and published an autobiography, "Speaking Truth to Power" and another book about the effects of the sub-prime mortgage crisis on African Americans called "Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home." And, although there was no #MeToo movement at the time, following her testimony harassment complaints filed with the EEOC went up 50 percent and Congress passed a bill that gave harassment victims the right to seek federal damage awards, back pay, and reinstatement.

Hill continues to teach social policy, law, and women's studies at Brandeis University, and was recently asked to lead the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace.

7. Barack Obama

The first black president of the United States was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. So he was breaking barriers before he even left law school. After graduation Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School for 12 years while also working on civil rights litigation for a Chicago law firm. After 11 years as an Illinois and U.S. Senator, Obama won the presidency in 2008. Over his two terms he signed several bills and executive orders advancing race, gender, and LGBT equality, but perhaps no legislation more famous than the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. What we know today as "Obamacare" provided healthcare to an estimated 20 million people who were previously uninsured.

Again, this is just a glimpse of the profound impact African American attorneys have had on American jurisprudence. If you need to find an attorney of your own, check out our attorney directory.

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