February is Black History Month, a time to honor the heritage and triumphs of African American people from the past to the present. From abolitionists to modern social justice advocates, the list of African American trailblazers is extensive. Thank you to the American Bar Association for honoring and celebrating just a few of those pioneering attorneys.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary
With a story that crosses borders, Mary Ann Shadd Cary was a lawyer, journalist and teacher who dedicated her life to civil rights. Born in 1823, she was raised in an activist family, with parents helping to guide escaped slaves through the Underground Railroad. After attending a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania, Cary taught in schools for black students for 12 years.
In 1850, she moved along with her family to Canada in response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. There, her father, Abraham Doras Shadd, became the first black man to have a political office position in Canada.
Once outside the United States, Cary’s life trajectory turned to journalism. She founded Canada’s first antislavery newspaper, The Provincial Freedom, thus becoming the first African-American female editor and publisher in North America.
After the Civil War, Cary moved to Washington, D.C., where she earned a law degree from Howard University. While little is known about her legal career, she did actively work with the women’s suffrage movement, even speaking in front of the House Judiciary Committee in 1874 as part of the fight for the right to vote. Cary died in 1893 from stomach cancer.
Yale University has many notable alumni, including Jane Bolin, the first African-American woman to graduate from the institution’s law school. Her father, Gaius Bolin, also was a lawyer and the first African-American graduate of Williams College. She was born in 1908.
With a JD in hand, Bolin continued to be a pioneer as the first African-American woman to join the New York City Bar Association and the first to work in the city’s legal department.
In 1939, she broke ground yet again as the first African-American woman to be a judge in the United States. Her appointment was to a family court in New York City, where she had a 10-year term. Bolin moved on to the New York State Board of Regents, while also having membership with the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Child Welfare League of America. She died in 2007.
Constance Baker Motley
Appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1966, Constance Baker Motley was the first African-American woman to join the federal judiciary. Leading up to her appointment, Motley maintained an impressive track record for cases argued before the Supreme Court. Through her work as the first female attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, she won nine out of the 10 cases that she argued. Motley may have lost in Swain v. Alabama, but the Supreme Court eventually overruled the decision in Batson v. Kentucky. Motley also wrote the original complaint for Brown v. Board of Education.
With 20 years of NAACP experience under her belt, Motley moved into the political arena in 1964, becoming the first African-American female state senator in New York. A year later, Motley was elected as the first female president of the Manhattan borough, before moving on to the federal judiciary. She was born in 1921 and died of congestive heart failure in 2005.
Loretta Lynch has used her Harvard law degree to pursue many avenues, from private practice to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Most notably, Lynch was the first female African-American attorney general, nominated under President Barack Obama. She was born in 1959.
Lynch spent her career leading up to the nomination fighting for human rights in the United States and abroad. She prosecuted cases such as that of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was sexually assaulted by New York City police. While in private practice, she focused on pro bono work for the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Once she was confirmed as attorney general, Lynch led investigations and supported reforms on police brutality. She left office in 2017.
This article contains just a few pioneering, persevering, groundbreaking African-American lawyers who have helped shape and form our country.