9 Famous and Innovative Black Lawyers in History (2023)

Saturday, February 4, 2023

According to 2020American Bar AssociationLegal Profession Profile Report, each year there are more and more people of color who become lawyers. Despite the increase, African Americans currently represent only 5% of all attorneys in the US Compared to their presence in the general US population (13.4%), African Americans are substantially underrepresented in the legal profession.

Advances in representation are critical to a diverse legal arena, ensuring fair results for more communities, less bias, and fewer barriers to entry into the legal profession for people of color. To that end, we celebrate nine trailblazing African-American lawyers who not only persevered, but also shaped the world as we know it with their tenacity and fortitude.

1. Jane Bolin

9 Famous and Innovative Black Lawyers in History (1)

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Starting the list is the amazing Jane Bolin, who was the first of many things. Jane was not only the first black judge in US history, but also the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, the first black woman to join the New York Bar Association,mialso the first black woman to join the New York City Law Department.

Initially barred from enrolling at Vassar College, which at the time denied admission to black students, he enrolled at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, graduating in the top 20 of his class. After being told by a career counselor at Wellesley that she could never get into Yale law school as a black woman, she was accepted, graduating in 1931.

She served 40 years as a judge in the domestic relations court, where her appointment was renewed 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

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Perhaps one of the best known names in legal history, Johnny gained public recognition for his masterful defense of OJ Simpson. In addition to OJ Simpson, other celebrity clients he has represented include Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Tupac.

His clever but controversial strategy, which ultimately won OJ's acquittal, was demonstrating the ineptitude of the LAPD and that OJ had been framed due to racism.

However, before representing celebrities, 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 attended UCLA and then Loyola Law School. After passing the bar exam, Johnnie was hired as an attorney for the Los Angeles City Attorney's office in traffic court. On his first day in court, he won 28 traffic ticket cases. By the mid-1960s, Johnnie was one of the leading trial lawyers in Los Angeles.

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Over the years, Cochran became known for his style of courtroom theatrics, which often included catchy rhetoric such as "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit!" He established himself as the go-to lawyer in Hollywood when he needed strong representation. In the 2000s, Johnnie was worth tens of millions.

3. Obama Barracks

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Not only was he the first black president in history in 2008, he is also a graduate of Harvard Law School and the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. After law school, he worked as an associate attorney at 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 chair of constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, where he remained for 12 years.

Three years after working as a professor of constitutional law, he was elected to the Illinois Senate. He continued to rise in politics and was eventually elected to the United States Senate, becoming the third African-American elected in United States history. In 2007, he launched his presidential campaign and became the first black president. He was elected for the second time in 2013 and remains one of the most celebrated presidents in history.

4. Willie Gary

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They call him the "giant slayer" for a reason: Willie Gary defeated corporate giants in seemingly impossible victories. Perhaps his most famous verdict was winning a$240 million settlement against Disneytwo men who claimed the original idea for the Wide World of Sports complex was stolen. In addition to the Disney case, he also won many other notable settlements valued at over $30 billion.

However, before making national headlines, he opened the first African-American law firm in his Florida hometown. In 1994 he formed the Gary Foundation, which is dedicated to youth education and drug prevention. He continues to practice law and also gives motivational talks across the country.

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5. Charles Hamilton Houston

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He is known as "The Man Who Killed Jim Crow" for his important contribution to ending segregation. In 1922, he was the only black student in his class and was no stranger to segregation. The son of a lawyer, he was no stranger to the law and followed in his father's footsteps. He graduated from Harvard Law School and soon after joined his father's law firm.

In addition to fighting Jim Crow laws, he is known for being an important mentor to black lawyers. He encouraged a generation of black lawyers to fight for equality and use the law to fight discrimination, most notably Thurgood Marshall, who was the first black Supreme Court justice.

6. Fred Grey

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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 seat of a segregated city bus, and is still alive today at 91. He has played a significant role in many landmark civil rights cases, including Browder v Gayle, which held that segregation on buses is unconstitutional.

He is arguably one of the most important African-American lawyers in history for his important career as a civil rights attorney. He received the 2003 Soaring Eagles Award from the Trial Lawyers Association of America's Minority Caucus, which recognizes the difficulties lawyers of color face in their quest for success.

7. Star Jones

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Star Jones was a household name from the late '90s to the 2000s, as she was one of the original hosts of The View. Often initially branded as controversial, the concept for The View was a multi-generational group of co-hosts discussing hot topics. Each panelist had distinct and varied ideologies and viewpoints that could lead to heated conversations. The show remains a success to this day, largely due to Star's legacy.

However, prior to being part of the daytime lineup, Star was a prosecutor with the Kings County District Attorney's Office in Brooklyn. Eventually, she was promoted to Senior Assistant District Attorney. Due to her no-nonsense approach and her 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 just one season, Star was officially the first black judge ever.

8. Charlotte E. Ray

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Charlotte E. Ray was the first African-American woman admitted to the bar of the United States. Ray studied law at Howard University, becoming the first woman admitted to the bar of the District of Columbia in 1872. She is said to have applied to Howard Law School under the name “C.E. Ray” so that her application will be judged on her merits and not on her gender.

Ray's best-known case occurred in 1875, representing Martha Gadley who was seeking a divorce from her abusive husband. She successfully argued the case before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Although her legal career was cut short by prejudice, her dedication to public service spilled over into her later career as a public school teacher and civil rights activist.

9Macon Bolling Allen

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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 lawyer, studying for the law school while working as an apprentice in the law firm of a white abolitionist.

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Allen was a member of the Maine and Massachusetts bar, and was initially denied admission to the Maine bar on the grounds that he was "not a legal citizen." He was appointed a Middlesex County Justice of the Peace in 1947. In 1868, he co-founded the first black-run law firm in the United States with 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 so bravely led the way, the legal industry is significantly more diverse than it was 100 years ago. However, there is still work to be done to improve diversity in the legal profession. Black lawyers remain the most underrepresented ethnicity in the United States, and diversity is important in society at large, and the legal world is no different. Diversity benefits both lawyers and their clients by providing different perspectives and promoting a more varied dialogue.


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