The start of February marks the beginning of Black History Month. In February of 1926, the “Father of Black History,” Carter G. Woodson, instituted the inaugural “Negro History Week” in the interest of promoting the recognition of positive African American contributions to this nation’s history. Woodson and the Association for the Study of African American Life and Culture (ASALH) shared a desire to celebrate the success of Black people and publicize their powerful impact on the structural development—political, economic, and social—of this nation and the world as a whole. Since 1976, the United States has expanded the original week to the entirety of February to, in the words of President Gerald Ford, further convey its “message of courage and perseverance.” Since President Ford has since passed, no one can ask him if he truly meant those words as an appropriate acknowledgement or simply a politically calculated move. Either way, in the year 2021 it doesn’t really matter what President Ford meant. What matters is that almost half a century later this country still keeps the recognition of positive Black history siloed to one month out of the year. Black History Month should serve as a reinforcement of Black achievement. Instead, it often stands as the only time many Americans consider Black history outside of the context of the American Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement—a movement that is not over, but continues to struggle for equality in this country today. Black History Month offers an opportunity to celebrate the central role of the Black community in this nation’s progress; instead, too often it is regarded as a chance to educate only on the history of violence and abuse against the Black community. It is important to recognize the horrific treatment this country has demonstrated towards the Black community. It is equally important to acknowledge, celebrate, and promote the positive contributions the Black community has offered to an ostensibly ungrateful nation.
This country has a nasty habit of painting over its diverse history in a thick layer of white, especially when considering educational curriculum requirements. Ideally, one day, the public school system will actively teach us all the positive contributions of diverse communities, instead of the abridged white-centric version of history that permeates every level of education in this country. In the meantime, it is the responsibility of non-Black people to do the work of educating themselves on the positive contributions of the Black community to this country’s history. In the spirit of that mentality, this week, rather than focusing on the legal system’s mistreatment of Black people, Criminal Injustice System will focus on some key trailblazers and contributions from the Black community to our legal history. This is only a starting point meant to encourage readers to learn about the triumphs of Black people in the judicial sector of the legal system.
On July 3, 1844, after passing the Maine bar exam, Macon B. Allen became the first recorded Black person to be granted a license to practice law in the United States. In 1845, Allen moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and with Robert Morris, also a Black lawyer, opened the first Black law office in the United States. Allen later went on to become a judge, and he practiced law until he died at the age of 78. Morris was the first Black lawyer to file a lawsuit on behalf of a client in the history of this nation—the jury found in favor of Morris’s client.
Justice Thurgood Marshall became the first Black justice on the United States Supreme Court in 1967. Before he was nominated to the Supreme Court, where he served a 24 year term, he was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Before entering the judiciary, Marshall served as a remarkable civil rights attorney, having won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court. One such win was the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, the decision that found “separate but equal” to be unconstitutional.
In addition to becoming the first Black woman to hold a position on the federal judiciary when she was appointed to the United States District Court Southern District of New York, Constance Baker Motley was also the first Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court. Between 1961–1964 she won 9 of the 10 Supreme Court civil rights arguments she presented. Justice Motley was a key figure in the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s. She helped implement the Brown v. Board of Education decision, for which she wrote the original complaint; her efforts helped end legally-condoned segregation.
The Black community’s contributions to our legal system are not relegated solely to decades past. In more recent years, Kylar Broadus, a Black trans man, became the first transgender person to testify before the U.S. Senate when he advocated for the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. He is now a world-renowned advocate for LGBTQ+ civil rights. Claudia L. Gordon was the first Black woman who is deaf to graduate law school. She advised President Barack Obama on disability issues, and she continues to be a powerful advocate for people with different abilities. Reginald M. Turner, Jr., a Black man, is the president-elect of the American Bar Association. He is expected to take office in August 2021.
Those discussed above are not intended to demonstrate the full extent of the Black community’s powerful impact on this country’s legal history. It is important to note that this is merely a short list of firsts highlighting Black pioneers in a field built on inherent racism and dominated by white supremacy. While the bravery of these Black advocates deserves our acknowledgement, we must also recognize this post is only a peek at what the Black community has contributed to our legal history. To narrate an in-depth examination of all the Black community has offered to further our legal community would take more than the month of February to both write and then read. From winning landmark civil rights cases of old to standing at the forefront of advocacy for an equitable society today—the Black community has always been present in shaping this nation’s history and contributing to the structure of our society. It is important that we recognize these contributions, not only in the month of February, but year round.
– L. Moose
Black History is a verb—Joshua Nkhata’s personal experience with “Black History”