Black History Month: 6 Black Legal Trailblazers You Should Know

Left to Right: Constance Motley, Charles H. Houston, Jane Bolin, Thurgood Marshall

Images courtesy of Library of Congress, Composite image: d50Media CC 4.0
(Left to Right: Constance Motley, Charles H. Houston, Jane Bolin, Thurgood Marshall)

February is Black History Month, a federally recognized observance of the contributions of African-Americans throughout American history. It‘s a time to celebrate and shine a light on some of the heroes, trailblazers, and pioneers who might otherwise not receive the attention they deserve, as well as a time to reflect on the ongoing struggle for racial justice in America.

As a national law firm with a 40-year track record of success, it’s vital that we credit a tremendous deal of our success to the African-American community — the brave black men and women who stood and fought for civil rights and shaped the way our country demands justice for those who have been underserved, underprivileged, and under-appreciated.

At Sokolove Law, we would like to do our part by highlighting 6 African-American historical figures from the field we know and understand best: law.

It is only thanks to these individuals — as well as countless lesser-known black lawyers, judges, and legal scholars — that we are able to continue down the path toward justice for all.

Jane Bolin (1908 - 2007)

In the field of firsts, Jane Bolin has at least four. In addition to being the first black woman in the United States to serve as a judge, Bolin was also the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School (1931), the first to join the New York City Bar Association, and the first to join the New York City Law Department.

Throughout her career, Bolin advocated for children’s rights, encouraging the desegregation of child welfare services. Under her watch, she made sure that probation officers were not assigned based on the race or ethnicity of parolees, and she fought for childcare agencies to accept any child without concern for race or religion.

During the Roosevelt administration, Bolin worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to support the Wiltwyck School, which was established to help provide homes to neglected African-American boys. Bolin also served on the boards of the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Child Welfare League.

Constance Baker Motley (1921 - 2005)

Throughout her career, Constance Baker Motley wore many hats: civil rights strategist, lawyer, federal judge, state senator, and New York City borough president. Having cited Jane Bolin as an inspiration, Motley would argue as many as 12 landmark civil rights cases before the United States Supreme Court, including as a clerk for Thurgood Marshall in the case of Brown v. Board of Education.

In 1964, Motley became the first African-American woman elected to the New York State Senate. She left that role the following year, having been chosen to become Manhattan borough president — the first woman of any race to serve in that position.

Motley was also the first African-American woman appointed to the federal judiciary, where she served as a judge from 1966 until the end of her life, including a chief judgeship from 1982 to 1986.

Charlotte E. Ray (1850 - 1911)

The life of Charlotte E. Ray enjoys special acclaim not only for its firsts but for having straddled and fought on behalf of two noble causes: civil rights and women’s suffrage.

Ray was the first black female lawyer in the United States. In addition to being the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, she was the first woman to practice law before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Ray was involved in the women’s suffrage movement, having attended the National Woman Suffrage Association's convention in 1876, and was also a member of the National Association of Colored Women. She formed a private practice specializing in commercial law in 1872, and was said to be “one of the best lawyers on corporations in the country.”

Despite her esteemed education and eloquent litigation, Ray was not invulnerable to the extreme prejudice of the era. As such, her practice was unable to sustain a consistent client flow. She later moved to Brooklyn and became a school teacher.

Charles H. Houston (1895 - 1950)

Earning the title “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow,” Charles Houston was a prominent figure in the dismantling of school and housing segregation, as well as in fighting the exclusion of African-Americans from jury selections. Houston argued against the “separate but equal” legal theories that prevailed during his lifetime, and he served in a number of key positions that afforded him great influence over legal theory and practice.

While at Harvard Law School, Houston became the first black student elected to the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review. Between 1929 and 1935, he served as the Vice Dean and Dean of the Howard University School of Law. He left that position to serve as the first special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a position he held until 1940.

Houston is also well known for having mentored a generation of black lawyers, judges, and legal professionals, including a young Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first African-American to serve in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thurgood Marshall (1908 - 1993)

While perhaps best known as the first African-American to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall was a prominent civil rights activist, lawyer, and advocate for racial equality. He spearheaded a number of landmark civil rights cases and was instrumental in putting an end to legal segregation in the United States.

Having founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Marshall argued many important civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including Smith v. Allwright, Shelley v. Kraemer, and Brown v. Board of Education. It was Brown v. Board that declared racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.

Having successfully dismantled racist segregation policies in voting, housing, and education rights, Marshall was appointed in 1961 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall to the position of U.S. Solicitor General and, in 1967, to Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the clerks in Marshall’s tenure was Elena Kagan, who was appointed to the same court by President Barack Obama in 2010.

Fred Gray (1930 - )

Throughout his career as a civil rights lawyer, activist, and politician, Fred Gray has served in defense of those who have been unjustly targeted by systemic racism, prejudice, and oppression.

Gray worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., E.D. Nixon, and other notable civil rights figures, eventually defending Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks for refusing to give up their seats on segregated city buses.

At various points in his career, Gray represented the NAACP, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Selma marchers, the latter of which he defended before the U.S. Supreme Court. Gray also represented plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit that stemmed from the controversial and racist Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

In addition to litigating several important civil rights cases, Gray served as a member of the Alabama House of Representatives from 1971-2015, and as President of the National Bar Association in 1985. In 2001, Gray became the first African-American President of the Alabama State Bar.

Sokolove Law Team

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Last modified: February 10, 2021

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