February 12, 2021
First Black Lawyer Leads the Others
Early African American lawyers, from left to right: Robert Morris, George Vashon, and John Mercer Langston
Who was the first known lawyer in U.S. history? It is not Macon Allen, Robert Morris, George Vashon, or John Mercer Langston. In legal history circles, these men are often viewed as the start of blacks in the U.S. legal profession. But decades before they started breaking barriers and passing state bars in the 1840s, a black lawyer’s legal career began in 1816 with a successful practice in New York City. His name was Moses Simons
Edward Alexander Bouchet
The New York City Hall Recorder reported on the Moses Simons case
Simons was born in South Carolina to a Jewish father who emigrated from London and a black mother who may have been enslaved or part of South Carolina’s free black community. Financially supported by his slave-owning Jewish relatives, in 1805 he entered Yale University. He graduated four years later, 65 years before the graduation of Edward Alexander Bouchet, Yale's first black Ph.D. graduate. 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. It is ironic that the very thing that ended his legal career preserved his story as a black lawyer in the historical record.[1]
The early history of black lawyers is punctuated with favoritism and paid apprenticeships which in turn made the legal profession a difficult road for African American lawyers. This is explained by Howard University legal scholar J. Clay Smith who wrote the early definitive work on black lawyers, Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944. Despite these challenges, a generation of pioneering black lawyers followed in Simons’ footsteps. 
The Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr.
Macon Bolling passed the Maine bar in 1844 after studying law under two white abolitionist lawyers, Samuel E. Sewall and Samuel Fessenden. Then, he passed the Massachusetts bar in 1845.[2] Attorney Charles Walker, in his interview for The HistoryMakers, remembered the ceremony 150 years later that memorialized the historic event: “We got the original papers, and we invited the bar and the whole community and everybody. And we did it at Faneuil Hall [Boston, Massachusetts] and it was amazing. All the federal district court, the federal bench showed up, the first circuit court showed up. All the black judges throughout the state wore their robes and they walked down the center aisle. They had someone sing 'The Star Spangled Banner.' It was just really a moving ceremony. And we used the actual motion, the actual words used in the motion. And the governor's legal counsel…had memorized the motion. And he recited his petition to admit this black lawyer. And Judge… Leon Higginbotham [A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr.] gave the keynote address. And it was really an unbelievably, moving ceremony. And it's never been replicated.[3]
Charleston, South Carolina County courthouse
Francis Fessenden
Macon Bolling Allen would go on to have a long, successful career that included establishing the black law firm of Whipper, Elliot, and Allen. He also went on to make history as the first black judge appointed to the Inferior Court of Charleston, South Carolina. Former Fisk University president Walter J. Leonard explained that Allen, like many black lawyers, fought for the black community: “When Macon Allen appeared before the Supreme Court along with General Fessenden [General Francis Fessenden]…[he] argued that if this country is to be as great as it ought to be and could be, it has to believe the Declaration of Independence. Now if you don't believe the Declaration of Independence, then you can become just another tribal kind of existence. But if you do believe that all men and all women were created equal, then that's the charge before the court… So, over the years… the black lawyer has stood before the bar of justice and argued for justice for all... It's easy to understand because if all people don't get it, it's clear the black folk are not gonna have it.[4]
“Turned Away from School,” Anti-Slavery Almanac, Boston, 1839
Other early black lawyers used their knowledge of the law to challenge discrimination and segregation. Robert Morris, for example, gained admission to the Massachusetts bar in 1847 and, as noted by Charles Walker, "He [Morris] argued this first school desegregation case… in 1850, lost that case, Roberts v. School Committee of Boston [sic. Roberts v. City of Boston, 1849] when little Sarah Roberts was about five years old, lived in the North End [Boston, Massachusetts]. She had to bypass five white schools to get to this school right here [Abiel Smith School, Boston, Massachusetts]. … And her father was a printer, Benjamin Roberts, hired the second black lawyer admitted to practice in the United States. Robert Morris knew that after he lost the trial, that if he argued for the state supreme court, he'd better bring a white lawyer up there with him. So, he hired Charles Sumner to co-counsel it. And, and it's the first time in United States history where a black lawyer and a white lawyer teamed up together, filed a brief together, and argued the same caseAnd this, our Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held essentially--that so long as you're not denying them an education, it's okay to separate colored kids from white kids. That was the holding of the Massachusetts state supreme court. Separate but equal. This is ground zero for separate but equal.[5]
Philemon Bliss
Howard University, Washington D.C., 1868
Then there is the story of John Mercer Langston, who in 1850 was denied admission to law school unless he was willing to “pass” as French or Spanish. Langston refused to pass as white. Instead, he studied under a white probate judge named Philemon Bliss. He was successfully admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854.[6] He then went on to become the first dean and first professor of Howard University School of Law (then known as the Howard University Law Department) at a time when the law school’s enrollment consisted of only six part-time law students with a racially integrated faculty.[7]
Charles Hamilton Houston
Clyde Ferguson
Raymond Pace Alexander
For Walter J. Leonard “the Civil Rights Movement…really began back in 1890's. In fact, maybe... with John Mercer Langston. Even before that. When John Mercer Langston was raising questions about, 'Why is it that we do not have? How can you say that we're going to be free and we can't have voting rights?' So with the 15th Amendment... how is it that you can say that this country was founded for those who are free, and yet you okay slavery?[8] Leonard went on to rightfully note: “But for the black lawyer, the American constitutional system would have been a farce. Charles Hamilton Houston breathed more life into the constitutional structure of this country than any other lawyer to have lived. And then you had people like Clyde Ferguson [Clarence Clyde Ferguson, Jr.]; and Raymond Pace Alexander. You had all of these people who… in an effort to gain full citizenship for the black American, expanded the meaning, and the… approach… and the comfort, and the coverage of the law for everybody.”[9] Long live the legacy of the black lawyer.
What is Our Legacy?
The Black Lawyer's Role in History
Our Donor: Peggy Montes
Before the COVID pandemic, we made an overdue visit to Chicago’s Bronzeville Children’s Museum in Chicago, Illinois, and to say that we were blown away would be an understatement. HistoryMaker and Founder of the Bronzeville Children’s Museum Peggy Montes has done what no one else in the United States has done: she has created an innovative, extremely well curated, interactive museum for children ages three to nine to expose them to the rich contributions and heritage of African Americans and the African diaspora. As we toured each room, we squeaked and hollered as if we were the children themselves. “Literally, this museum should be replicated in every community across the United States”, says, The HistoryMakers Founder and President Julieanna Richardson. After an initial career in the Chicago school system, in 1978, Montes began devoting her energy to philanthropic and volunteer work. She served as chairperson of the Board of Trustees for Chicago’s DuSable Museum from 1989 to 1993 and headed the construction of the museum's Harold Washington wing. This role gave her the distinction of being the first woman to chair both the museum's governing body and its building committee. She also was appointed by the late Mayor Harold Washington as executive director of the Chicago Commission on Women. On August 20, 1993, Montes and a group of dedicated business, civic, cultural and educational leaders founded the Bronzeville Children's Museum in Evergreen Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. “We are so appreciative of her continued contributions.

That day, Peggy also surprised us with a five year gift to The HistoryMakers 20@2020 Campaign.

Thank you, Peggy!

Please join Peggy in making a five year pledge, by clicking below: 
[1] Laura Copland, “The Rise and Fall of Moses Simons: A Black Lawyer in the New York City Criminal Court, 1816-1820,” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 37, no. 2 (July 2013).
[2] Daniel Hinchen, “Passing the Bar: America’s First African-American Attorney,” Massachusetts Historical Society, last modified May 7, 2019, http://www.masshist.org/beehiveblog/2019/05/passing-the-bar-americans-first-african-american-attorney/; Smith, 8.
[3] The Honorable Charles Walker (The HistoryMakers A2007.251), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 12, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 7, story 6, The Honorable Charles Walker talks about Macon Bolling Allen. 
[4] Walter J. Leonard (The HistoryMakers A2001.038), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, January 27, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 8, story 7, Walter J. Leonard talks the significance of The Black Lawyer in America Today Symposium. 
[5] The Honorable Charles Walker (The HistoryMakers A2007.251), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 12, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 7, story 7, The Honorable Charles Walker describes the history of civil rights law, pt. 1.
[6] Smith, Emancipation, 34.
[7] Smith, Emancipation, 43.
[8] Walter J. Leonard (The HistoryMakers A2001.038), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 18, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Walter J. Leonard talks about African American accomplishment, resistance, and activism during the 19th and 20th Centuries.
[9] Walter J. Leonard (The HistoryMakers A2001.038), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, January 27, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 8, story 7, Walter J. Leonard talks the significance of The Black Lawyer in America Today Symposium.