5 Revolutionary Black Lawyers That Changed America

In celebration of Black History Month, we’re featuring five revolutionary black lawyers who had an impact on American history. Some of these men and women made their marks in the courtroom, some gravitated to legislatures and others have been successful in both arenas.

Macon Bolling Allen, First African American Lawyer & Judge, 1816

Macon Bolling Allen is believed to be the first African American licensed to practice law and hold a judicial position in the U.S. Allen passed the bar exam in 1844 and became a Massachusetts Justice of the Peace in 1848. Following the Civil War in 1874, Allen moved to South Carolina and was elected as a probate court judge. Following the Reconstruction Era, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as an attorney for the Land and Improvement Association.

Charlotte E. Ray, First Female African American Lawyer, 1872

Charlotte E. Ray was the first African American lawyer in the U.S. and the first female admitted to the District of Columbia Bar. Ray passed the bar exam in 1872 after attending Howard University School of Law. She was an important figure in the abolitionist movement and later became the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.

Jane Bolin, First Female African American Judge, 1939

Jane Bolin was the first African American woman to serve as a judge in this country. She was sworn in to the bench in 1939 in New York City. She served on the Family Court bench for four decades, advocating for children and families. She was also the first African American woman to graduate from Yale Law School, the first to join the New York City Bar Association and the first to join the New York City Law Department.

Thurgood Marshall, First African American Supreme Court Justice, 1967

Thurgood Marshall was the first African American to serve as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. Prior to his judicial service, he successfully argued 20+ cases before the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in schools.

Barack Obama, First African American President of the United States, 2008

Prior to becoming the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law School and became a civil rights attorney and professor at the University of Chicago Law School. Obama served as U.S. Senator of Illinois and later went on to win the 2008 election, making him the first African American President of the United States. He won re-election in 2012.