Let’s Celebrate National Black History Month

Black History Month started in Chicago in the summer of 1915. Carter G. Woodson, an American historian, author, journalist, and alumnus of the University of Chicago, went to Washington, D.C. to participate in a national celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation sponsored by the state of Illinois. Many other African Americans traveled from across the U.S. to see exhibits highlighting the progress their people had made since the destruction of slavery. That gave him the idea to promote Black history, and as Black populations grew, mayors issued Negro History Week proclamations, and many cities celebrated Negro History Week. The movement continued to grow, and by the 1940s, Blacks in West Virginia, a state where Woodson often spoke, began to celebrate February as Negro History Month.

To celebrate Black History Month, Fennemore looks at some of the African American attorneys who have made a significant impact on the legal profession.

Macon Bolling Allen (1816-1894). First on the list has to be the first African American attorney to practice law in the United States and to hold a judicial position. Macon Bolling Allen passed the Maine bar exam in 1844; however, racial prejudice forced him to become the Justice of the Peace of Middlesex County, Massachusetts rather than a practicing lawyer. Mr. Allen became the first African American in the country to hold a judicial position, even though he wasn’t considered a U.S. citizen under the Constitution at the time.

Charlotte E. Ray (1850-1911). Ms. Ray was the first Black female lawyer in the United States and taught law at Howard University. When she was admitted to DC Bar in 1872, Ms. Ray became not only the first woman admitted to practice in the District of Columbia; however, her law office in Washington, DC had few clients because of racial prejudice, so she returned to New York City to teach in the public schools.

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938). Mr. Johnson is best known for his part in the creation of the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to being an attorney, he was also an early civil rights activist and a leader of the NAACP. After founding a newspaper called The Daily American, Mr. Johnson became the first African American attorney to pass the Florida State Bar.

Gertrude Rush (1880-1962). Gertrude Elzora Durden Rush was the first African American female lawyer in Iowa, admitted to the Iowa bar in 1918 and helped found the National Bar Association in 1925. Ms. Rush remained the only African American female to practice law in Iowa until the 1950s. She received her B.A. from Des Moines University in 1914 and then started studying law under her husband, James B. Rush, a Des Moines attorney. She passed the Iowa Bar in 1918. In 1924, after she was denied membership in the American Bar Association, she and four male African American lawyers created the National Bar Association, a minority bar association. Two monuments in her honor are located at the Des Moines Public Library and St. Paul AME Church.

Eunice Carter (1890-1970). Ms. Carter is certainly one of the most noteworthy and inspirational African American lawyers in our history. She was the first African American female to graduate from Fordham University and work as a prosecutor in New York City. In addition, Ms. Carter played a primary role in prosecuting Charles “Lucky” Luciano, one of the most notorious mob bosses in the country. Carter later entered private practice but remained active in the United Nations, the Executive Committee of the International Council of Women, and the board of the YWCA. As an extra note, you can learn more about this great litigator by reading her grandson’s book: Stephen L. Carter’s Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.

Justice Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993). No list of influential Black attorneys can be complete without Thurgood Marshall, who was the first African American justice on the United States Supreme Court. After Howard University, Mr. Marshall was counsel to the NAACP, and in 1954, he won the seminal case of Brown v. Board of Education, which ended racial segregation in American public schools.

Judge Jane Bolin (1908-2007). Bolin was the first African American female judge in the U.S. She earned her law degree at Yale Law School in 1931, where she was also the first African American woman to graduate. During Judge Bolin’s four decades on the bench in New York’s Family Court, she helped bring about some major civil rights reforms, focusing on children and families of color.

Judge Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005). Judge Motley was the first African American woman to be appointed as a federal judge and was the first African American woman to serve as a member of the New York State Senate. She also served as an associate counsel to Thurgood Marshall in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, for which she wrote the original complaint. In addition, she was the first female attorney for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In this position, she became the first African-American woman ever to argue a case before the Supreme Court of the United States in 1962. Ms. Motley argued in Meredith v. Fair that James Meredith should be the first black student permitted to attend the University of Mississippi. She won the case. In another important decision in 1978, Ms. Motley argued and won Ludtke v. Kuhn that a female reporter should be allowed into a Major League Baseball locker room after a game.

Charles H. Houston (1895-1950). This notable attorney fought against Jim Crow throughout the South and successfully challenged segregation at the University of Maryland Law School. Mr. Houston was also the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review and argued a number of cases before the United States Supreme Court. In addition, Mr. Houston mentored another influential Black attorney, Thurgood Marshall.

Fred Gray (1930- ). As an attorney and as a political strategist during the Montgomery bus boycott, Mr. Gray played a critical role in the successful desegregation of that city’s buses. When two women, Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks, were charged with the crime of refusing to give up their seats to white passengers, Mr. Gray defended the women in court. Further, he challenged the constitutionality of Alabama laws requiring segregation on buses in Browder v. Gayle. The 1956 decision to end racial segregation on Alabama’s buses was affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. In 1970, Mr. Gray served in the Alabama State Legislature as an elected representative from Tuskegee, making him one of the first two African American public officials to serve in the legislature since the Reconstruction era.

Barack Obama (1961- ). Finally, another famous Black attorney was elected the first African American president of the United States. As part of his legal education, Mr. Obama went to Harvard Law School in 1988 and was the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. When he returned to Chicago after law school, he joined the law firm Sidley & Austin in 1989 as an associate working on civil rights cases. It was at the law firm that he met another associate—his future wife, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, also a graduate of Harvard Law School, and the future first African American first lady of the United States.


Every February, we celebrate the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans who have helped form our nation in Black History Month. As part of the celebration, Fennemore honors these and all Black attorneys who are making a difference in our society.

During the month of February – and always – we honor the Black attorneys and allied legal professionals who are positively impacting our colleagues, clients and communities, as well as all the diverse legal professionals who proudly make a profound difference every day in the legal profession.

To learn more about our firm’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, please visit:


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