Northern Virginia Black Attorneys Association


History of the Black Attorney – Part 2


The History of the Black Attorney is divided into three parts:

  1. Part 1 outlines various publications concerning Black legal history.
  2. Part 2 contains a list of significant black attorneys on a national scale.
  3. Part 3 is a list of names of successful black attorneys, both local and international.

We now provide a list of quintessential names which are necessary for any proper understanding of the import Black Attorneys on American, or indeed, World History:

| Thurgood Marshall | Charles Hamilton Houston |
| William Hastie | Marian Wright Edelman | Johnnie Cochran |
| John Mercer Langston | Leroy Hassell | A. Leon Higginbotham |
| Constance Baker Motley | Spottswood W. Robinson III |
| George Ruffin | Conrad Harper | William T. Coleman |
| Deval L. Patrick | Derrick Bell | Vernon Jordan |
| Drew Days III | Charlotte E. Ray | Dennis Archer |
Damon J. Keith |Wade McCree | *

* Our failure to include any name above is, in fact, a result of the inherently impossible challenge to include all deserving names. There are, in fact, more names than be reasonably placed on this page. Unfortunately, time and prudence does not allow us to account for every successful lawyer of African American descent. Several upstanding examples can be seen in your serving your local legal community. From the Prosecutor or District Attorney, to the Defense Counsel, Civil Litigator, City Council Member, Non-Profit Director, School Superintendent, Municipal Court Judge, Circuit Court Judge, Administrative Law Judge, JAG Corp. Officer, etc., etc., etc. In honor of those individuals, we have instead elected to create a listing of other prominent Black Attorneys.

• Thurgood Marshall, head of the Legal Defense Fund and Supreme Court Justice: When Professor Vile asked his collaborators for the names of the greatest American lawyers of all time, the lawyer named to the highest rank was Thurgood Marshall. A native of Baltimore, Marshall graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Barred from the law school at the University of Maryland because of his race, Marshall enrolled at the law school at Howard University, where he studied under Charles Hamilton Houston. Marshall led the NAACP’s litigation effort to end racial segregation in American education. He was later named by President Johnson as the first African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

• Charles Hamilton Houston, Dean of the Howard Law School and architect of the legal strategy leading to Brown v. Board of Education: Charles Hamilton Houston is largely credited with formulating the legal strategy that led to Brown v. Board of Education. Thurgood Marshall once said that all the other NAACP lawyers “were merely carrying Charlie’s bags.” As head of the Howard University law school, Houston trained a large group of black lawyers who would lead the legal fight to end racial segregation. Houston graduated as the valedictorian and member of Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College in 1914. After serving in World War I, Houston enrolled at Harvard Law School, where in 1922 he graduated in the top 5 percent of his class.

• Hon. William Hastie, the first African American to be named a federal judge: William Hastie was Charles Hamilton Houston’s cousin and as a young lawyer he worked in Houston’s Washington, D.C., law firm. Hastie was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. Both of his parents were college graduates. He graduated from Dunbar High School in Washington and then enrolled at Amherst College. There he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was the valedictorian of the Class of 1925. He followed in the footsteps of his cousin Charles Hamilton Houston and attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1930. In 1937 Hastie was the first African American to be appointed to the federal bench.

• Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund: For the past several decades Marian Wright Edelman has been an unwavering advocate of children’s rights. A native of Bennettsville, South Carolina, Edelman graduated from Spelman College and Yale Law School.

• Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., one of the nation’s premier defense attorneys: Johnnie Cochran came to national prominence for his successful defense of football star O.J. Simpson who had been accused of double murder. Cochran graduated from UCLA in 1959 and immediately enrolled at the law school of Loyola University in Los Angeles, where he earned his law degree in 1962. Cochran is now concentrating on civil rights law.

• John Mercer Langston, first Dean of the Howard University Law School and the first African American to hold elective office in the United States: John Mercer Langston, for whom Langston University in Oklahoma is named, entered Oberlin College at the age of 14 in 1845. Because no law school would admit an African American, Langston studied for the bar on his own, which he passed in 1854. His most noted courtroom case was the acquittal of the African-American sculptress Edmonia Lewis, who had been accused of poisoning two of her college roommates. Langston later served as the first dean of the Howard University School of Law. He was the great-uncle of poet Langston Hughes.

• Hon. Leroy Rountree Hassell, Sr., Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, is a native of Norfolk, VA, graduating from Norview High School in 1973, where he was a champion debater. He then attended the University of Virginia, where he was on the Dean’s List every semester and earned numerous honors and awards. Later, at the Harvard Law School, he was on the Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. In 1989, at the age of 34, Leroy Rountree Hassell was appointed to the Supreme Court of Virginia by Governor Gerald Baliles and was elected by the General Assembly. Justice Hassell was selected by his fellow Supreme Court justices to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, the first time the position has not been awarded automatically to the most senior justice. The General Assembly passed legislation authorizing that change in 2002. This is the first time it has been awarded to an African-American in the 224-year history of the Court.

• Hon. A. Leon Higginbotham graduated with honors from Yale Law School. Thereafter he clerked for Justice Curtis Bok of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and served for a year in the office of Philadelphia District Attorney. With his law-school classmate Clifford Scott Green, Higginbotham formed a law practice, Norris, Green, Harris & Higginbotham, which specialized in serving the needs of Philadelphia’s African American community. In 1962, President Kennedy appointed him to the Federal Trade Commission, and two years later President Johnson appointed him as United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania — at 36, making him one of the youngest persons ever to be appointed to the federal bench. Fifteen years later, President Carter elevated him to the Court of Appeals. He sat as a judge on that Court until his retirement in 1993. Throughout most of that period, Judge Higginbotham maintained a killing schedule as teacher, scholar, lecturer, consultant, and advisor. Judge Higginbotham often spoke of the experiences of racial prejudice and exclusion that had shaped his social vision resulting in his critically acclaimed books, In the Matter of Color (1978) and Shades of Freedom(1996).

• Hon. Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman to serve as a federal judge: A native of New Haven, Connecticut, Motley went to Fisk University but later transferred in 1942, New York University where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Motley went on to continue her studies at Columbia Law School where she met Thurgood Marshall. Mr. Marshall offered her a job as a law clerk in the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s New York office. After receiving her law degree in 1946, she became a full-fledged member of the legal staff. By early 1964, Motley’s high-profile work as a civil rights lawyer had drawn her into the world of politics. From 1964 to 1965 Motley served a full term in the New York State Senate as the first African-American female senator. In 1966, President Johnson appointed her a United States district judge, making her the first black woman to be appointed to a federal judgeship. As U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York, the largest federal trial court in the United States, she was also the highest-paid black woman in government. She was made chief judge in 1982 and senior judge four years later.

• Hon. Spottswood W. Robinson III, member of Thurgood Marshall’s Legal Defense Fund team and a long-time federal appellate judge: Spottswood Robinson III is another of the group of black lawyers trained by Charles Hamilton Houston at Howard University’s law school. A graduate of Virginia Union University, Robinson was considered to have had a brilliant legal mind. After serving with Thurgood Marshall at the Legal Defense Fund, Robinson served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and later on the federal district court and federal appeals court for the District of Columbia. Robinson died in 1998 at the age of 82.

• Hon. George L. Ruffin was the first African American to earn a law degree from Harvard University. He established a thriving practice in Boston and served as a judge.

• Conrad Harper, a current member of the Harvard University Board of Overseers, was the first black president of the New York City Bar Association. He is a partner at New York’s prestigious law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.

• William T. Coleman served as secretary of transportation in the Ford administration. A partner at the prestigious law firm O’Melveny & Myers, Coleman also serves as chair of the Legal Defense Fund. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Coleman served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.

• Deval L. Patrick, a graduate of Harvard Law School, is general counsel of Texaco. A former partner at Day Berry & Howard in Boston, Patrick served as assistant attorney general for civil rights.

• Derrick Bell is a widely published legal scholar and professor of law at New York University. He made headlines in 1990 when he gave up his position at Harvard Law School in protest of the school’s inability to hire a woman of color to its faculty. Top

• Vernon Jordan sits on 10 corporate boards and is a perennial Washington powerbroker. Former head of the National Urban League, Jordan was a confidant of President Clinton while a partner at Washington’s Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. He now is a senior managing partner at investment banking firm Lazard Freres and Co. in New York City.

• Drew Days III is Alfred M. Rankin Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the former assistant attorney general for civil rights. He also served as solicitor general of the United States.

• Charlotte E. Ray is the first woman to practice law in District of Columbia. Ray was admitted to the Howard University School of Law in 1870, a year after it opened its doors to educate future African-American lawyers. She was the second woman to attend an organized law school in the country. In 1872, she became the first woman and first African-American woman admitted to the District of Columbia Bar.

• Dennis Archer is another accomplished black attorney. He was appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court, where he served two terms before giving up that job to become the first Black mayor of Detroit. Archer served two four-year terms as mayor of Detroit from 1994 to 2001, and during his last year as mayor was also president of the National League of Cities. Archer, as Co-Chair of the Democratic National Committee, played a crucial role in carrying Michigan for President Bill Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore for President in 2000;After leaving the mayor’s office, Archer was elected chairman of Dickinson Wright PLLC, a two hundred person Detroit-based law firm with offices in Michigan and Washington, D.C. During his career, he has been president of the Wolverine Bar, the National Bar Association, and the State Bar of Michigan. Archer is now the first African American president of the American Bar Association (ABA).

Damon J. Keith has had an illustrious career. He graduated from West Virginia State College in 1943 and was then drafted into the military. His experiences in the segregated Army strengthened his conviction to the cause of civil rights. Keith received a J.D. from Howard University School of Law in 1949, passed the Michigan bar exam in 1950, and earned an L.L.M. from Wayne State University School of Law in 1956. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Keith to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, where he served as chief judge from 1975 to 1977 before President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Keith took senior status in 1995. In 1993, the Damon J. Keith Law Collection, an archival resource devoted to the substantial historical accomplishments of African American lawyers and judges as well as the African American legal experience, was created at Wayne State University and named in his honor.

• Wade McCree has always been known as a groundbreaker. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude from Fisk University in 1941. After a four-year stint in the Army during World War II, he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1948. At a time when some lunch counters wouldn’t serve black people, McCree became the first African-American judge appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit and the second African-American solicitor general in the history of the United States. 

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