Long before the Civil Rights Movement, Black lawyers dared to ask questions about the rights of Black Americans. Their history precedes the Civil War, with free Black attorneys in the North working to help slaves gain their freedom.
“How can you say that this country was founded for those who are free, and yet you okay slavery?” they asked.
And after the slaves were free, they were the early fighters for Black men’s rights.
“How can you say we’re going to be free but we can’t have voting rights?” they asked.
The national legacy of racism severely hampered their progress, but they did not give up. While others fought for gains on the educational, social and cultural fronts, Black lawyers took on many of these same battles by attacking them with the force of law. They fought the battles that assured Black people the same undeniable rights awarded to others under the law.
But for the Black lawyer, the American constitutional system would have been a farce.
Read below to learn more about these brave, legal soldiers who were the early fighters for Black rights.
Moses Simons: America’s First Black lawyer (1790?? – 1822)
Moses Simons was so far ahead of his time that he’s often forgotten. Most of the history books credit Macon Allen as the first Black attorney, but a generation before Allen, Simons had already passed the bar.
Simons was born in South Carolina to a Jewish father who emigrated from London and a Black mother. Financially supported by his slave-owning Jewish relatives, in 1805 he entered Yale University. That was a full 65 years before Edward Alexander Bouchet, who is often cited as a Yale graduate and America’s first Ph.D.
Simons then attended Litchfield Law School in Connecticut under the tutelage of Judge Tapping Reeve. By 1816, Simons had passed the New York Bar and began practicing law in New York City’s criminal court, where cases ranged from petty theft and bodily assault to prostitution. Court records indicate that he appeared before all-White juries while working across from White lawyers as he represented a range of clients. However, his practice declined significantly and rapidly in 1818 after Simons was convicted of assault and battery. While attempting to attend a public dance, Simons was refused entry based on his race and got into an altercation. Despite the support of prominent men of the time, Simons was convicted and fined.
Macon Allen (1816 – 1894)
Macon Allen passed the Maine bar in July 1844, nearly 30 years after Simons. Like many of the early lawyers, he did not attend law school but studied under White attorneys who eventually recommended him to sit for the bar. Allen studied under two White abolitionist lawyers, Samuel E. Sewall and Samuel Fessenden. The Portland District Court rejected Fessenden’s first motion to admit Allen to the bar in April 1844, concluding Allen did not meet the state’s citizenship requirement. Allen tried again, pursuing admission by examination, a method that did not require citizenship. He faced a hostile examination committee, nevertheless, Fessenden said, “his qualifications were not denied.”
He passed the Massachusetts bar in 1845 and became a Massachusetts Justice of the Peace in 1847, a position that allowed him to handle small claims and minor crimes.
While he may not have been the first Black attorney, as is often presented, he is most likely the first African American to become a lawyer to argue before a jury and hold a judicial position in the United States.
Allen participated in a jury trial in October 1845 that is believed to be the first time an African-American lawyer argued before a jury in the United States. The case was a contract dispute. Allen’s client, the defendant, lost, although the jury awarded lower damages than the plaintiff had requested.
With so few African Americans in Massachusetts, Allen found it hard to find clients. So, after the Civil War and during the height of the Reconstruction Era, he moved to South Carolina where he opened a law firm with two other African-American attorneys, William Whipper and Robert Elliott. Their firm, Whipper, Elliott, and Allen, is the first known African-American law firm in the country.
The state legislature in 1873 elected Allen to be a judge of Charleston County Criminal Court. He served for three years and in 1876, was elected as probate judge for Charleston County, South Carolina, defeating the White incumbent.
Following the end of Reconstruction, Allen moved to Washington, D.C., where he continued to practice law.
Robert Morris (1823 – 1882)
Robert Morris was among the first Black attorneys in America, but where he stands out is as one of the first really successful Black lawyers in America.
At age 15, Morris went to work as a household servant for the abolitionist lawyer Ellis Gray Loring. When Loring’s regular copyist, a White youth, neglected his duties, Morris took over for him. Impressed with Morris’ intellect, Loring tutored him in the law, and in 1847 presented him for admission to the Massachusetts bar.
While Macon Allen may have been the first Black attorney to appear before a jury, Morris is cited as the first Black attorney to file a lawsuit and the first to win a lawsuit.
Morris was active in Black and abolitionist causes, notably filing and trying the first U.S. civil rights challenge to segregated public schools in the 1848 case of Roberts v. Boston. Morris and Charles Sumner pressed the case, which is believed to be the first legal challenge to the “separate but equal” practice of segregation in America. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled against Morris in 1850. The U.S. Supreme Court later cited the case in support of its Plessy v. Ferguson ruling in 1896, which codified the “separate but equal” standard. “Separate but equal” was not overturned until 1954, with the case of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.
Morris also fought hard against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by representing several slaves who fled the South but were captured in the free North.
Morris was commissioned as a magistrate of Essex County, MA, by the governor, making him the second Black lawyer to hold a judicial post.
John Mercer Langston (1829 – 1897) Although not as well-known today as Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. DuBois, John Mercer Langston was one of the most prominent African Americans in the United States before and during the Civil War.
In addition to being one of the country’s earliest Black lawyers he also had a successful political career, securing several presidential appointments.
Langston was born free, the son of Ralph Quarles a Virginia plantation owner and a free Native-American-Black woman. When his parents died, he was raised by his older brothers in Ohio. They inspired him to attend Oberlin College in Ohio.
Langston wanted to become a lawyer, but after two law schools denied him admission, he studied under local abolitionists in Elyria, OH. In September 1854, a committee on the district court confirmed his knowledge of the law, deeming him “nearer White than Black,” and admitted him to the Ohio bar.
Langston’s political involvement began in Ohio. In 1852, he joined the Free Democrats, who condemned the Fugitive Slave Law, allowed Black delegates at their conventions, and elected Frederick Douglass as their national party secretary. In 1855 he ran for the office of clerk of the Brownhelm Township on the Liberty Party ticket and won. In 1856, he moved to Oberlin and served on the town’s board of education. Following the Civil War he served on the Oberlin City Council.
In 1867 he served as Inspector General of the Freedmen’s Bureau, touring the postwar South and encouraging freedmen to seek educational opportunities. He regularly spoke out against segregated facilities, including churches.
For the two decades of the postwar era, Langston held prominent political and education appointments. In 1868 he established the law department at Howard University and served as the university’s dean from 1868 to 1875 and as vice president and acting president from 1874 to 1875. In the early 1870s, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts sought Langston’s aid in drafting his Civil Rights Bill. In 1871, Langston received an appointment from President Grant to the D.C. Board of Health.
In 1877, President Hayes appointed Langston resident minister to Haiti and chargé d’affaires in Santo Domingo.
He settled in south–central Virginia, where citizens asked him to run for a seat in the U.S. House, representing the “Black Belt of Virginia,” a region that was 65% Black. It was a contentious and close election that was finally settled by the courts, with Langston being proclaimed the victor. Only one week after arriving in Congress, Langston had to return home to campaign for re–election. Split and disgruntled by Langston’s first race, Langston lost his second run for office.
Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950)
Charles Hamilton Houston was a prominent African-American lawyer, Dean of Howard University Law School, and NAACP first special counsel, or lltigation director. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Houston played a significant role in dismantling Jim Crow laws, especially attacking segregation in schools and racial housing covenants. He earned the title “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.”
Houston is also well known for having trained and mentored a generation of black attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court Justice. He recruited young lawyers to work on the NAACP’s litigation campaigns, and built connections between Howard’s and Harvard’s university law schools.
From 1929 to 1935, Houston served as Vice-Dean and Dean of the Howard University School of Law. He developed the school, beginning its years as a major national center for training black lawyers. The program gained accreditation under his watch.
Houston left Howard in 1935 to serve as the first special counsel for the NAACP, serving in this role until 1940. In this capacity he created litigation strategies to attack racial housing covenants and segregated schools, arguing several important civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Through his work at the NAACP, Houston played a role in nearly every civil rights case that reached the US Supreme Court between 1930 and Brown v. Board of Education.
Houston was the architect of the strategy to fight segregation in education by demonstrating the inequality resulting from the “separate but equal” doctrine dating from the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson.
Charlotte Ray: First Black Woman Attorney
During the 19th century, women were largely barred from the legal profession, but that didn’t stop Ray from trying to break in anyway.
She attendee Howard University and since Howard didn’t discriminate on any basis, she was able to take law classes, even though she knew that women weren’t allowed on the D.C. bar.
“I have been told that her admission to the bar was secured by a clever ruse, her name being sent in with her classmates as C.E. Ray,” wrote Lelia J. Robinson in 1890, “although there was some commotion when it was discovered that one of the applicants was a woman.”
Robinson’s claim has been disputed by other historians, who say that the bar had recently decided to admit women. Her admission to the bar made her not just Howard’s first black woman legal graduate, but one of just a small handful of women who practiced law in 1872.
Ray did not practice law for long. She faced prejudice not only as a Black attorney, but additionally as a female attorney. She married, moved to New York and became a school teacher.
Lutie Lytle (1875 – 1955)
Lutie Lytle was born in Tennessee but raised in Topeka, KS where she attended Topeka High School. She began her professional career in Tennessee as a school teacher and saved her earnings to help finance her law school tuition at Central Tennessee College in Nashville.
In September 1897 she was to practice law in the Criminal Court in Memphis, TN, after she successfully passed an oral exam. At the time Lytle was reportedly the first African American woman to be licensed to practice law in Tennessee, and the third in the United States. Lytle however soon returned to Topeka, where she became the first African American woman admitted to the Kansas State bar.
In 1898, Lytle joined the faculty at Central Tennessee University. By 1910 she was living in Brooklyn New York with her husband who was also a lawyer.