Black lawyers who made a difference

Francine Cullari

In honor of Black History Month in February, the legal community paid tribute to a number of Black attorneys who have made indelible marks on the history of our country. Their many contributions well-exceed those honors mentioned below.

Marcus Bolling Allen (1816-45) – First licensed Black attorney in the U.S. and member of the first all-Black law firm in the U.S., Whipper, Elliot and Allen. He became a probate judge later in life.

Charlotte E. Ray (1850-1911) – First Black female to receive a law degree and the first Black female lawyer in the U.S.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-93) – Raised in Philadelphia, she was founder of Canada’s first anti-slavery newspaper and after the Civil War, was active in the women’s suffrage movement.

Jane Bolin (1908-2007) – First Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, first Black woman in the New York City Bar Association, and first to work in the city’s legal department. She became the first Black female judge and member of the New York Board of Regents.

Thurgood Marshall (1908-93) – Valedictorian at Howard University Law School, he founded the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, well-known for arguing Brown v Board of Education in the U.S. Supreme Court; first Black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005) – State senator in New York, president of the Manhattan borough of New York City, first Black woman to join the federal judiciary.

Fred Gray (b. 1930) — Dr. Martin Luther King’s first civil rights attorney, representing Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin and the plaintiffs in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study and six landmark constitutional lawsuits.

Dennis Archer (b. 1942) — President of the State Bar of Michigan, first Black president of the America Bar Association, Michigan Supreme Court justice.




Barbara Jordan (1939 – 1996) — First Black woman senator in Texas, first Black female U.S. congresswoman, first Black woman to give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Clarence Thomas (b. 1948) — Sole Black assistant attorney general in Missouri, chairperson of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, second Black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Eric Holder Jr. (b. 1951) — First Black U.S. assistant attorney general, first Black U.S. attorney general.

Paulette Brown (b. 1951) — First black female president of the American Bar Association.

Loretta Lynch (b. 1959) — Legal work for the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; first black female U.S. attorney general.

Barack Obama (b. 1961) — Illinois Senate, U.S. Senate, first black president of the Harvard Law Review; first black president of the U.S., whose spouse Michelle Obama was the first black First Lady of the U.S.
Information from the American Bar Association, https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/14-groundbreaking-black-lawyers-gallery

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Francine Cullari is a private practitioner who teaches Business Law and Labor and Employment Law at University of Michigan-Flint.



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