April 29, 2010
While most African-Americans in the pre-Civil War era were slaves, there was also a growing population of free black citizens, some of whom overcame racism and discrimination to become successful professionals.
Two such pioneers for progress were Macon B. Allen and Robert Morris, believed to be the first two African-Americans licensed to practice law in the United States. They opened a law office together in Boston on April 29, 1845, while both men were still in their 20s, having arrived at their profession by similar paths.
Macon B. Allen was born in the frontier state of Indiana as a free person. Not much is known about his early life, except that he somehow learned to read and write, because teaching school was his first job. He later moved to Maine and gained access to the law the way most aspiring attorneys did at the time: By serving as a clerk to a practicing attorney (in this case, a prominent Maine abolitionist).
In 1844 Allen became the first African-American to be admitted to a state bar, but he moved to Boston after realizing that there weren’t enough free blacks in Maine to support a practice, and others were reluctant to be represented by a black attorney.
Robert Morris (pictured here) was a native of Salem, Massachusetts, and he had some formal education while growing up. Like Allen, Morris also studied law and passed the Massachusetts bar while apprenticing for an abolitionist lawyer.
Morris has the distinction of being the first black attorney to represent a client in court. We don’t know much about the case except for what Morris recorded in his journal. “There was something in the courtroom that made me feel like a giant,” he wrote. “The courtroom was filled with colored people, and I could see, expressed on the faces of every one of them, a wish that I might win the first case that had ever been tried before a jury by a colored attorney…”
The governor of Massachusetts appointed Allen to a justice of the peace position in 1849, making him the first African-American to serve in any judicial capacity. Three years later, Morris was appointed to a county magistrate position. And throughout their distinguished careers, both men worked to advance the causes of the anti-slavery movement and black civil rights.
Westlaw users: For a fascinating discussion of school segregation during the pre-Civil War era, take a look at the Roberts v. City of Boston ruling on Westlaw (1849 WL 2756), a case filed by Robert Morris on behalf of a five-year-old girl. (Sign-on required)