5 Black Lawyers You Didn’t Know Changed History

5 Black Lawyers You Didn’t Know Changed HistoryThis week we’re hearing from guest writer Stephanie Nweke about five black lawyers you may not have heard about but who have had a big impact on the legal world.

Black History Month is a time of celebration of the stride black people have made and continue to make in this country. But, the celebration doesn’t stop in February! Many people mistakenly think that Black History exists apart from U.S. History. Black History is an intricate part of U.S. History, which is why we should be more knowledgeable about black history even after February ends. Today I want to spotlight five black attorneys who have had a lasting impact on this country.

According to an ABA 2019 demographics survey, 5% of attorneys in the United States are Black or African American. My goal is that this post not only educates you, but also reminds you of the urgent significance of having a diverse and inclusive legal profession.

1. Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950)

Charles Hamilton Houston is most known for dismantling Jim Crow and mentoring Thurgood Marshall, who went on to be the first African American Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States.

Houston attended Harvard Law School and was the first black man to become editor of the Harvard Law Review. He went on to work with the NAACP as its first special counsel and designed the organization’s legal strategy to further advance civil rights. He had a successful career in challenging several cases before the Supreme Court and Thurgood Marshall continued his legacy.

2. Fred David Gray, Sr. (1930—Present)

Fred David Gray, Sr. is most known for being a prominent lawyer during the Civil Rights Movement. Not only did he represent the plaintiffs from the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, but he also worked with Martin Luther King Jr., and defended Rosa Parks after she was arrested during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Gray received a judicial nomination from President Carter and later became the first black president of the Alabama Bar Association. Fred David Gray, Sr. also won several awards for his work during the Civil Rights Era and was portrayed by Cuba Gooding, Jr., in the Academy Award nominated film, Selma.

3. Charlotte E. Ray (1850-1911)

Charlotte E. Ray became the first black female lawyer in the United States in 1872. She attended Howard School of Law and was the first woman admitted to the D.C. Bar and the Supreme Court of D.C.

Although the racial discrimination Ray faced prevented her from actively practicing, she continued her career as a teacher. Because of Ray’s immense determination and perseverance, thousands of other black female attorneys have successful practices in this country today.

4. Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005)

Constance Baker Motley is well known for the essential role she played with the NAACP and its legal strategies, primarily the case involving James Meredith. Meredith was supported by the 5th Circuit of Appeals to attend the University of Mississippi during the fight to end desegregation. Motley also represented Martin Luther King Jr. during her career.

Motley was later the first black woman elected to New York’s State Senate and Manhattan’s Borough President. Constance Baker Motley was also the first black woman to be appointed to the federal judiciary and used her influence as a judge to continually advance the fight for civil right. 

5. Eunice Carter (1899-1970)

Eunice Carter is most known as one of the first black women to receive a law degree in New York and the attorney that convicted a big-time mobster, Charles “Lucky” Luciano. She graduated from Fordham University in New York. Not only was Carter an active and successful prosecutor, but she also served in the Pan-African Congress and the United Nations.

Ultimately, Carter used her legal education and influence to advocate for women’s’ rights through service on several international organizations relating to advancing the status of women.

By learning about these important lawyers, hopefully you’ll be inspired to find out more about the lesser known, but important voices in the legal world.


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About Stephanie Nweke

Stephanie is a second-year student at the University of Houston Law Center. She is also the co-founder of Blademy, an online platform where Black millennials come to learn new skills, land better jobs, and reach their full potential. Stephanie is interested in the intersection of law, business, and technology and wants to create more access to the legal profession for first-generation and minority students.

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  1. […] This week we’re hearing from guest writer Stephanie Nweke about five black lawyers you may not have heard about but who have had a big impact on the legal world. Black History Month is a time of celebration of the stride black people have made and continue to make in this country. But, the celebration { Continue Reading } […]

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