February is Black History Month, an annual celebration of the achievements of African Americans and a time to recognize the central role of Black people in United States history. We’re proud to share the story of seven Black female lawyers who smashed the glass ceiling, changing the American legal landscape in the process. These women paved the way for other aspiring Black female lawyers by leading with courage, even as they were met with adversity.
Please join us in celebrating Black History Month and find inspiration in the following stories.
Charlotte E. Ray (1850-1911)
Charlotte E. Ray was born in New York City on January 13, 1850. After graduating from college in 1869, Ray became a teacher at Howard University, where she would later register in the Law Department. In fear that she would not be admitted due to her gender, she registered as C.E. Ray.
Ray graduated from Howard University School of Law on February 27, 1872, and was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar on March 2, 1872, making her the first Black female attorney in the United States. She was also admitted as the first Black female to practice in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia on April 23, 1872.
Ray had to end her legal practice fairly quickly because she was unable to maintain a steady client flow due to racial and sexist prejudice. She later moved back to New York and became a teacher in Brooklyn. It is also believed that she was active in the women’s suffrage movement and joined the National Association of Colored Women.
- First African American female lawyer in the U.S.
- First female admitted to the District of Columbia Bar
- First female admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia
Jane Bolin (1908-2007)
“I wasn’t concerned about first, second or last. My work was my primary concern.”
Jane Bolin was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. on April 11, 1908. She was the daughter of Gaius C. Bolin, a lawyer and the first Black person to graduate from Williams College. At 16, she enrolled at Wellesley College, where she was one of only two Black freshmen. Bolin graduated in the top 20 of her class in 1928.
Although she was strongly discouraged from applying to Yale Law School due to her race, Bolin was admitted and graduated in 1931 as the first Black woman to receive a law degree from Yale. She then went on to become the first Black woman to join the New York City Bar Association in 1932.
On July 22, 1939, the mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia, appointed Bolin as a judge of the Domestic Relations Court, making her the first Black woman to serve as a judge in the U.S. She proceeded to be the only Black female judge in the country for 20 years. She remained a judge of the court for 40 years until her retirement at age 70. Bolin worked tirelessly to encourage racially integrated child services, ensuring that probation officers were assigned without regard to race or religion and that publicly funded childcare agencies accepted children without regard to ethnic background.
- First African American woman to graduate from Yale Law School
- First African American woman to join the New York City Bar Association
- First African American woman to join the New York City Law Department
- First African American woman to serve as a judge in the U.S.
Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005)
“Something which we think is impossible now is not impossible in another decade.”
Constance Baker Motley was born on September 14, 1921 in New Haven, Conn. She was inspired to attend law school after hearing a speech by Yale Law School graduate George Crawford, a civil rights attorney for the New Haven Branch of the NAACP. Motley attended New York University in 1943 and received her law degree from Columbia Law School in 1946. During her second year of law school, future U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall hired her as a law clerk.
After graduating from Columbia, Motley became the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s (LDF) first female attorney. She went on to become Associate Counsel to the LDF, making her a lead attorney in many significant civil rights cases.
In 1950, Motley wrote the original complaint in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. She was also the first African American woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court (Meredith v. Fair). Motley was successful in nine of the ten cases she argued before the Supreme Court. She was elected to the New York State Senate in 1964, making her the first African American woman to sit in the State Senate.
In 1966, Motley broke another glass ceiling by becoming the first African American federal judge after her nomination to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
- First African American woman appointed to the federal judiciary
- NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s first female attorney
- First African American woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court
- First African American woman to sit in the State Senate
Barbara Jordan (1939-1996)
“What the people want is very simple — they want an America as good as its promise.”
Barbara Jordan was born in Houston, Texas on February 21, 1936. Due to segregation, Jordan could not attend The University of Texas at Austin, and instead chose Texas Southern University, a historically Black institution. After majoring in political science, Jordan attended Boston University School of law in 1956 and graduated in 1959.
After two unsuccessful campaigns for the Texas House of Representatives in 1962 and 1964, she won a seat in the Texas Senate in 1966. The victory made her the first African American state senator since Reconstruction in 1883, and the first woman to ever serve in that body.
In 1972, Jordan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as the first woman elected to represent Texas in the House. While serving, she was a member of the House Judiciary Committee, where she later delivered an influential televised speech supporting the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.
In 1976, Jordan became the first Black woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1994.
- First African American woman elected to the Texas Senate
- First Southern African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives
- First African American woman to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention
Loretta Lynch (1959-Present)
“The power to arrest — to deprive a citizen of liberty — must be used fairly, responsibly and without bias.”
Loretta Lynch was born on May 21, 1959 in Greensboro, N.C. In 1981, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and American literature from Harvard College and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1984.
Lynch began her legal career as a litigation associate in New York City, and eventually became a drug and violent-crime prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1990. From 1994 to 1999, she made her way from chief of the Long Island Attorney’s Office to Assistant U.S Attorney in the Eastern District. In 1999, Lynch was nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. She left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2001 to become a partner at Hogan & Hartson (later Hogan Lovells) until 2010. At that time, President Barack Obama nominated Lynch to again serve as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
In 2014, President Obama nominated her for the position of U.S. Attorney General, succeeding Eric Holder, making her the first African American woman and second African American (after Holder) to hold this office. She currently serves as a partner with Paul, Weiss in their New York office, where she advises clients on complex government and internal investigations and high-stakes litigation matters.
- First African American woman to serve as United States Attorney General
Kamala Harris (1964-Present)
“My mother had a saying: ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.”
Kamala Harris was born in Oakland, Calif. on October 20, 1964. By the time she attended kindergarten, Harris was being bused to school as part of a desegregation program. Throughout her childhood, children in her neighborhood were restricted from playing with her and her sister because they were Black.
After high school, Harris attended Howard University and eventually received her law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of Law. After graduation, she worked as a deputy district attorney in California and later as an assistant district attorney in San Francisco. In 2004, she became the first person of color elected as the District Attorney of San Francisco.
In 2011, Harris became the first African American and first South Asian American Attorney General of California. She was re-elected in 2014. Harris would later be elected as a United States Senator in 2017.
In 2021, Harris became the 49th Vice President of the United States, making her the first woman, first African American and first South Asian American Vice President in U.S. history.
- First person of color elected as the District Attorney of San Francisco
- First African American, and the first South Asian American to hold the office of Attorney General in California
- First woman, first African American, and first South Asian American Vice President of the United States
Ketanji Brown Jackson (1970-Present)
“My hope is that the fullness of my journey as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, litigator and friend will stand as a testament for young women, people of color and dreamers everywhere.”
Ketanji Brown Jackson was born in Washington, D.C., on December 14, 1970, but grew up in Miami. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1992 and cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1996. She served as a supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review while in law school.
Jackson clerked for Judge Patti Saris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts from 1996 to 1997, Judge Bruce Selya of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit from 1997 to 1998 and Justice Stephen Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 1999 Term.
After three years in private practice, Jackson worked as an attorney at the U.S. Sentencing Commission, as an assistant federal public defender in Washington, D.C., and then again in private practice for three years as Of Counsel at Morrison & Foerster LLP. Her parents attended segregated primary schools and then worked in public schools, which led to her decision to work as a public defender. In her law practice, Jackson focused on criminal and civil appellate litigation in both state and federal courts, as well as cases in the Supreme Court of the United States. She then served as a vice chair and commissioner on the U.S. Sentencing Commission from 2010 to 2014.
In 2012, President Barak Obama nominated her to the U.S. District Court in D.C. before President Joe Biden elevated her to the D.C. Circuit. She was nominated as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022. Justice Jackson was sworn in on June 30, 2022, as the nation’s 116th justice, becoming the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Justice Jackson also is the first former public defender to serve on the Court.
- First Black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court
- First former public defender to serve on the Court