9 Famous and Groundbreaking Black Lawyers in History
According to the 2020 American Bar Association Profile of the Legal Profession Report, there are more and more people of color becoming lawyers every year. Despite the increase, African Americans currently make up only 5% of all lawyers in the US. Compared to their presence in the overall population in the United States (13.4%), African Americans are substantially underrepresented in the legal profession.
Strides in representation are key to a diverse legal arena, ensuring just outcomes for more communities, reduction in bias, and lower barriers to entry into the legal profession for people of color. To that end, we’re celebrating nine trailblazing African American attorneys who didn’t just persevere, but downright shaped the world as we know it with their tenacity and steadfastness.
1. Jane Bolin
Kicking off the list is the incredible Jane Bolin who was the first of many things. Jane was not only the very first black judge in United States history, but also the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, the first black woman to join the New York City Bar Association, and also the first black woman to join the New York City Law Department.
Initially restricted from enrollment at Vassar College, which refused admission to black students at the time, she instead enrolled at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and graduated in the top 20 of her class. After being told by a career advisor at Wellesley she could never make it into Yale Law school as a black woman, she was nevertheless accepted and graduated in 1931.
She served 40 years as judge of domestic relations court where her appointment was renewed a whopping three times. During her time as a judge, she was a strong advocate for children's rights and education, and fought to combat racism.
2. Johnnie Cochran
Perhaps one of the most familiar names in legal history, Johnny first gained public recognition for his masterful defense of OJ Simpson. In addition to OJ Simpson, other celebrity clients he represented included Michael Jackson, James Brown and Tupac.
His skillful yet controversial strategy that ultimately won OJ’s acquittal was demonstrating the ineptitude of the LAPD, and that OJ had been framed due to racism.
Before representing celebrities, however, Johnnie had a modest upbringing in Louisiana during the Jim Crow era. His great-grandparents were slaves and his grandfather was a sharecropper. Thanks to his parents' strong work ethic, he pursued his education at UCLA and after, attended Loyola Law School. Following passing the bar exam, Johnnie was hired as an attorney for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office in traffic court. On his very first day in court, he won 28 traffic ticket cases. By the mid-1960’s Johnnie was one of Los Angeles’s top trial lawyers.
Over the years Cochran became well known for his theatrical courtroom style which often included catchy rhetoric like "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit!” He established himself as the “go-to” attorney in Hollywood when you needed strong representation. By the 2000’s Johnnie was worth tens of millions.
3. Barack Obama
Not only was he the first black president in history in 2008, but he was also a Harvard Law School graduate, and the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. Following law school, he worked as an associate attorney with an Illinois law firm for three years, staying true to his passion for representing discrimination and voting rights cases. In 1993 he was offered a position to teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School where he remained for 12 years.
Three years into working as a constitutional law lecturer, he was elected to the Illinois Senate. He continued to rise in politics and eventually was elected to the U.S. Senate, making him the third African American elected in US history. In 2007, he began his presidential campaign and became the first-ever black president. He was elected a second time in 2013, and remains one of the most celebrated presidents in history.
4. Willie Gary
They call him the “Giant Killer” for a reason— Willie Gary famously took down corporate giants in wins that were seemingly impossible. Perhaps his most famous verdict was winning a 240 million dollar settlement against Disney for two men who claimed their original idea for the Wide World of Sports complex was stolen. Beyond the Disney case, he also won many other notable settlements valued over a whopping 30 billion dollars.
Before he made national headlines, however, he opened the very first African American law firm in his town in Florida. In 1994 he formed the Gary Foundation which is dedicated to the education of young people and drug prevention. He continues to practice law and also delivers motivational speeches across the country.
5. Charles Hamilton Houston
He is known as the “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow” for his significant contribution to ending segregation. In 1922, he was the only black student in his class and was no stranger to segregation himself. The son of a lawyer, he was no stranger to law and went on to follow in his father’s footsteps. He graduated from Harvard Law School and joined his father’s law practice soon after.
In addition to fighting Jim Crow laws is known for being a prominent mentor for black attorneys. He encouraged a generation of black lawyers to fight for equality and use the law to combat discrimination, most notably Thurgood Marshall who was the first black supreme court justice.
6. Fred Gray
Fred worked directly with Martin Luther King Jr as his first civil rights attorney and defended Rosa Parks for her famous refusal to sit in the back of a segregated city bus, and is still alive today at 91 years old. He played an important role in many historical civil rights cases including Browder v Gayle, which affirmed that bus segregation is unconstitutional.
He is arguably one of the most important African American lawyers in history for his significant career as a landmark-setting civil rights attorney. He was awarded the Soaring Eagles Award in 2003 from the Minority Caucus of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America which recognizes the difficulties that lawyers of color face in their pursuit of success.
7. Star Jones
Star Jones was a household name in the late 90’s to the 00’s as she was one of the original hosts of The View. Often marked as controversial initially, the concept of The View was a multi-generational group of co-hosts discussing hot topics. Each panel member had distinct and varying ideologies and viewpoints which could lead to heated conversations. The show is still a success to this day largely in part to Star’s legacy.
Before she was a part of daytime programming, however, Star was a prosecutor with the Kings County Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn. Eventually she was promoted to senior assistant district assistant district attorney. Because of her no-nonsense approach and charisma, she soon found herself starring in her own court show, which was an attempt at another version of The People’s Court and Judge Judy. Despite the show being canceled after only one season, Star was officially the first black court show judge in history.
8. Charlotte E. Ray
Charlotte E. Ray was the first African American woman admitted to the bar in the United States. Ray studied law at Howard University, becoming the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia bar in 1872. She’s said to have applied to the Howard School of Law with the name “C.E. Ray” so that her application would be judged on its merits and not on her gender.
Ray’s most well-known case came in 1875, representing Martha Gadley seeking a divorce from her abusive husband. She successfully argued in the case before the District of Columbia Supreme Court. Although her legal career was shortened by prejudice, her dedication to public service extended into her later career as a public school teacher and civil rights activist.
9Macon Bolling Allen
Macon Bolling Allen was the first African American admitted to the bar and the first Black judge in the United States. He was a self-taught attorney, studying for the bar while working as an apprentice at the law firm of a white abolitionist.
Allen was a member of the bar in Maine and Massachusetts, having been initially denied entry to the Maine bar on the grounds that he “was not a legal citizen.” He was named as Justice of the Peace in Middlesex County in 1947. In 1868, he co-founded the first Black-run law firm in the United States alongside Robert Brown Elliot and William J. Whipper. Allen also served as a judge in South Carolina during Reconstruction.
Paving the Way for Future Generations of Lawyers
Thanks to these revolutionary lawyers who paved the way so courageously, the legal industry is significantly more diverse than it was 100 years ago. Yet there is still work to be done to improve diversity in the legal profession. Black lawyers still remain the least represented ethnicity in the United States, and diversity is important in society as a whole—and the legal world is no different. Diversity benefits both lawyers and their clients since it provides different perspectives and promotes a more varied dialogue.