Eleven Black Legal Pioneers to Celebrate During Black History Month

Since 1976, every American president has designated February as Black History Month, a time to honor the contributions and legacy of Black Americans — from activists and civil rights trailblazers to leaders in business, politics, science, the arts, law, and more. To commemorate Black History Month, we highlight a non-exhaustive list of eleven legal pioneers who made history and paved the way for future generations.

Black History Month Legal Pioneers - Macon Bolling Allen

Macon Bolling Allen

Macon Bolling Allen is known to be the first Black man to become an attorney in the United States. In 1844, he was admitted to practice in Maine and later practiced in Massachusetts, where he became a justice of the peace. After moving to South Carolina in 1868, Allen became a partner in the first Black law firm in the U.S. and was appointed to another judiciary post. He is believed to be the first Black person to hold a judicial position in the U.S.

Black History Month Legal Pioneers - Jane BolinJane Bolin

Jane Bolin spent her life breaking through barriers. Bolin was the first Black female graduate of Yale Law School, and she became the first Black female judge in the United States in 1939. Bolin served as a judge in New York Family Court for over forty years, with her appointment renewed three times, until she was required to retire at age 70. She was also the first Black woman to join the New York City Bar Association and to work as an attorney for the New York Law Department.

Black History Month Legal Pioneers - Eunice CarterEunice Carter

Eunice Carter was one of the first Black women attorneys in New York and one of the first women of color to become a prosecutor in the United States. Carter built the case and legal strategy that successfully allowed the New York District Attorney to take down famous mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Among her many other achievements, she served on the United Nations committee to advance the status of women in the world.

Black History Month Legal Pioneers - William H. HastieWilliam H. Hastie

Among many other accomplishments, Hon. William H. Hastie became the first African American federal judge in 1937 when he was appointed to the United States Virgin Islands District Court. Hastie served as Dean of the Howard University School of Law and later as a co-lead lawyer with his student, Thurgood Marshall, in the voting rights case of Smith v. Allwright (1944).

Black History Month Legal Pioneers - Charles Hamilton HoustonCharles Hamilton Houston

Charles Hamilton Houston was a prominent Black attorney who played a pivotal role in dismantling Jim Crow Laws, using his brilliant legal mind to undercut the “separate but equal” principle. He litigated several cases that laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education and was a mentor to Thurgood Marshall. Houston was the first general counsel for the NAACP, graduated from Harvard Law School, and served as a dean at Howard Law School.

Black History Month Legal Pioneers - James Weldon JohnsonJames Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson was both an attorney and an early civil rights activist. Johnson was a leader of the NAACP, and founded a newspaper called The Daily American. Johnson was the first African American lawyer to pass the Bar in Florida. He was also a distinguished author. Some of his published works include The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) and God’s Trombones (1927).

Black History Month Legal Pioneers - Barbara JordanBarbara Jordan

Barbara Jordan was an attorney, politician, and educator who used her skills to fight for civil rights. After Reconstruction, Jordan was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate and was the first southern Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Just one of her numerous awards was the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1992, Jordan received the NAACP Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement by an African American.

Black History Month Legal Pioneers - Lutie LytleLutie Lytle

Lutie Lytle was the third Black woman to earn a law degree in the United States and the first Black woman admitted to practice in Kansas and Tennessee. In 1898, Lytle became one of the first female law instructors in the world as she joined the law school faculty at Central Tennessee College. As the daughter of formerly enslaved people, she had a personal understanding of the powerful impact of the law. Her passion fueled her service to her communities for her entire legal career.

Black History Month Legal Pioneers - Thurgood MarshallThurgood Marshall

Throughout his life and career, Thurgood Marshall made an invaluable difference in the civil rights movement. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund was founded under his leadership, and the most historic case Marshall argued as a lawyer was Brown v. Board of Education, which famously declared the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional. He became the first Black person appointed to the post of U.S. Solicitor General in 1965. Two years later, Marshall became the first Black person appointed to the United States Supreme Court, serving there until 1991.

Black History Month Legal Pioneers - Constance Baker MotleyConstance Baker Motley

Motley was a civil rights advocate and, in 1966, was the first Black woman to be appointed to a U.S. federal judgeship. She also worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund alongside Thurgood Marshall, represented Martin Luther King Jr., served in the NY State Senate, and served as Manhattan Borough President in New York City, among many other accomplishments.

Black History Month Legal Pioneers - Charlotte E. RayCharlotte E. Ray

Charlotte E. Ray became the first Black female lawyer in the U.S. in 1872, at a time when women were largely barred from the legal profession. Ray attended Howard University and was active in the NAACP, and the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements.

Celebrating Black History Month

The contributions of Black lawyers to American society are vast and go well beyond this list. This month and every month, we hope that the legal icons mentioned above inspire you to find your passion and change the world for the better.