In February 2013—African-American Heritage Month—it’s easy to grow complacent about the strides made by blacks in the legal profession. After all, the president of the United States is African-American and a former president of the Harvard Law Review. The U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, is African-American, as is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
But the trail that has culminated in seats of power and influence in Washington, D.C., began more than 160 years ago with the first African-Americans to enter the American legal profession, overcoming incredible barriers that no white aspiring lawyer had to conquer.
In his groundbreaking 1999 book Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844–1944, J. Clay Smith Jr. (a former dean of the Howard University School of Law who served in both the Carter and Reagan administrations, and a biographer of Thurgood Marshall) sheds light on the earliest African-American attorneys.
The first African-American to be admitted to the bar in the U.S. was Macon Bolling Allen of Portland, Maine. An article in the Sept. 14, 1844 Portland American newspaper describes how Allen (who was born a free man in Indiana in 1816), initially applied for admission to the Maine bar but was “refused on the ground that the applicant was not a citizen of Maine” (at the time, under the U.S. Constitution, no black was considered a citizen of the United States).
But Allen, a former schoolteacher who had studied the law under the tutelage of local abolitionist and attorney Gen. Samuel Fessenden, would not be turned away. He applied to be admitted by examination, and as the newspaper account states, “He was thereupon called before the examiners, a committee of the Cumberland bar, and sustained a satisfactory examination—the committee recommending him to the Court as a fit candidate—and accordingly he was admitted in the District Court to practice as an attorney and counsellor at law in the courts of this state.”
But being admitted to practice and making a living as an attorney are two different things. Allen found few whites willing to have a black lawyer, and Maine had a tiny African-American population whose legal needs couldn’t sustain him.
So, he relocated to Boston, Mass., in 1845, and he would again have to seek admission by passing a bar examination. This time, however, his physical stamina was needed as much as his legal acumen: the site of the examination was 50 miles away in Worcester, Mass., and Allen couldn’t afford transportation.
He walked the entire distance, and though physically exhausted, passed the exam, becoming the first African-American attorney in Massachusetts. Allen would also become, just three years later, the first black to hold judicial office in the United States when he became justice of the peace for Middlesex County, Mass.
After the Civil War, Allen moved to Charleston, S.C. There, in 1873, he briefly held one judgeship before being elected a probate court judge in 1874. After Reconstruction, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he became an attorney for the Land and Improvement Association. Allen died in 1894 at the age of 77, but his legacy lives on in one particularly meaningful way: a Boston civil rights law clinic bears his name.
Allen’s rough road to bar admission was traveled by other early African-American lawyers. At the age of 15, Robert Morris was hired as a house servant by a wealthy white Boston lawyer. Impressed with Morris’ aptitude, the lawyer encouraged his employee to “read the law” and pursue a legal career.
In 1847, Robert Morris became the second black lawyer in the United States. He would go on to file the first civil rights lawsuit challenging segregation in public schools, in the 1848 case of Roberts v. Boston.
In 1850, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled against Morris and his client in a decision that would later be cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the highest court in the land upheld segregation under the doctrine of “separate but equal” (a doctrine that stood until the landmark 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education).
In 1857, Edward Garrison Draper became the first African-American admitted to practice law in Maryland. It wasn’t easy—Maryland law at the time limited admission to the bar to “free white citizens,” leaving Draper ineligible with two strikes against him—he was black and therefore not considered a citizen.
But Draper was undaunted, and he convinced the authorities to admit him to practice by stating that he didn’t plan to practice law in Maryland, but instead needed to be admitted as a lawyer so that he could practice in Liberia, where he intended to emigrate. Texas wouldn’t have an African-American attorney until 1877, when A.W. Wilder was admitted to practice.
These earliest African-American lawyers became members of the bar the way most white lawyers did at the time, by “reading the law” under the guidance of an older attorney and then passing an examination (usually oral) by members of the local bar.
John Mercer Langston was no exception. Born free in 1829 in Virginia to a former slave, Lucy Langston, and the white plantation owner, Ralph Quarles, who freed her and then fathered three sons with her over the course of a 25-year relationship, Langston was raised in Ohio after both his parents died.
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin College, Langston applied for admission to law schools in New York and Ohio but was denied because of his race. So, he “read the law” under the guidance of an attorney and U.S. congressman, Philemon Bliss, and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854.
Langston became active in the abolitionist movement, and helped runaway slaves escape to freedom through Ohio’s segment of the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, he served as president of the National Equal Rights League and in 1868 became dean of Howard University’s law school—the first black law school in the United States.
In 1870, he assisted in the drafting of what would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1875, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1875. He later became, during a period of increasing disenfranchisement for blacks in the Jim Crow South, the first African- American to be elected to Congress from Virginia (and one of only five blacks in Congress during that turbulent period).
These early African-American attorneys overcame incredible obstacles in their quest to join this profession. They gained their legal knowledge through countless hours of self-study at a time when law schools would not admit them, vowed to uphold a Constitution under which they weren’t even considered citizens, and plied their trade in courtrooms where blacks could not even serve on juries.
Lawyers like Macon Bolling Allen, Robert Morris, and John Mercer Langston blazed a trail that legal giants like Thurgood Marshall would later follow, and their legacy deserves to be remembered and honored.
(For more information on early African-American legal pioneers, I recommend the work of the Just the Beginning Foundation, a multiracial nonprofit organization whose goal is to increase racial diversity in the legal profession and on the bench; its website is www.jtbf.org).