Five Fast Facts: Black History Month Edition

default author image02.07.2024

Black History Month takes place every February in honor of the contributions and sacrifices made by African Americans throughout U.S. history. Here are five fast facts relating to Black history with a particular focus on the legal field.

1. Black History Month was originally only a week

In 1926, academic and historian Carter G. Woodson designated a week in February to honor Black history that coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Under Woodson’s organization, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Black History Week eventually became Black History Month.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford recognized Woodson’s efforts and Black History Month became a national observance.

2. Less than 8% of law students are Black

As we pointed out earlier this month, the legal industry has a diversity problem. But it’s not for lack of interest: 12% of law school applicants in 2023 were Black, closely matching the 13% of the population who identifies as Black.

Of all students enrolled, however, only 7.8% were Black, which is about the same as 10 years ago. Discrepancies between application and enrollment can be due to several factors including racial breakdown of law school admission offers and personal enrollment decisions.

3. Macon Bolling Allen was the first Black lawyer in the U.S.

Macon Bolling Allen is considered to be the first Black lawyer in the United States. After serving as a legal apprentice for abolitionists, Allen’s bar admission was originally denied because he was not considered to be a full U.S. citizen (Black people were not granted full citizenship until the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868). He was eventually admitted to the Maine bar in 1844.

After struggling to obtain clients in Maine, Allen relocated to Massachusetts where he became a Justice of the Peace and was subsequently thought to be the first Black person to hold a judicial position. In 1868, he opened the nation’s first Black law firm in South Carolina with fellow attorneys William Whipper and Robert Elliott.

Macon Bolling Allen

Source: Wikimedia

4. George Boyer Vashon was NY’s first Black attorney

George Boyer Vashon

Source: Wikimedia

Four years after Allen was admitted to the bar, New York got its first Black lawyer: George Boyer Vashon. After becoming the first Black man to graduate from Oberlin College, Vashon studied law in Pennsylvania and was denied bar admission there because of his race. He spent much of his career as a teacher and taught as a professor for several months in Haiti.

When Vashon returned to the States, he practiced law for a few years in Syracuse before eventually becoming Howard University’s first Black professor. George B. Vashon Museum of African American History in St. Louis is named in his honor and highlights Black History in Missouri.

Ending off the five fast facts with an absolute icon, Constance Baker Motley: the first Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court. Motley won 9 out of 10 of her Supreme Court cases, several of which were tied to desegregation efforts.

Among her long list of accomplishments, Motley was also:

  • The second Black woman to graduate from Columbia Law School
  • The first Black woman to serve as a federal judge
  • The first woman to serve as Manhattan Borough President
  • The first Black woman in the NYS Senate
  • Legal counsel to Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Integral in desegregating several universities in the South
  • The Legal Defense Fund’s first female attorney, where she wrote legal briefs in the seminal U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education

Constance Baker Motley

Source: Library of Congress