Resource of the Month: First African-American Lawyers



02/09/2017
By Jonathan Watson

In honor of Black History Month, this posting will focus on the first African Americans to practice law in the United States, California, and Solano County.

 

Macon Bolling Allen has the distinction of being the first African American man licensed to practice law in the United States. According to the source American National Biography (accessed via Solano County Library’s database Biography Resource Center), the details of Allen’s early life such as his birthplace, parents, and primary education are either contradictory or unknown. It is known that Allen read law in the offices of abolitionist lawyers Samuel E. Sewell and General Samuel Fessenden before being admitted into the Maine bar in 1844. In 1845, Allen was admitted into the Massachusetts bar after relocating to that state. He would eventually become the state’s first judicial officer after being appointed as a justice of the peace by Massachusetts’ Whig governors in 1847 and 1854. In the 1860s, Allen migrated to Charleston, South Carolina with a group of African American lawyers and activists. He formed the first African American law firm with partners Robert Brown Elliot and William J. Whipper. By 1873, Allen would become a judge of Inferior Court, and later serve as a judicial officer in the probate court from 1876-1878. Allen would later relocate to Washington, D.C. where he remained until his death in 1894.

 

Washington, D.C. would also give rise to the first African American female lawyer in the United States. Prior to settling in the District of Columbia, Charlotte E. Ray—the seventh child in her blended family—was born in 1850 in New York City to the Reverend Charles Bennett Ray and his second wife Charlotte Augusta Burroughs (American National Biography, 2010). Reverend Ray was a renowned abolitionist pastor who was heavily involved with the Underground Railroad, as well as the former editor of the Colored American.  Ray attended Washington D.C.’s Institution for the Education of Colored Youth before becoming a teacher at the Howard University Normal and Preparatory Department in 1869. She studied and specialized in commercial law in Howard University’s Law Department. She became the first African-American woman to graduate from her class in 1872, and would go on to become the first African-American female lawyer admitted to the District of Columbia bar and the entire United States. Ray was admitted by mistake, as she used her first initials “C.E.”—which was misinterpreted as belonging to a man.

 

Ray set up a legal practice in Washington, D.C. Yet, as with Allen, Ray would encounter difficulties attracting clients—due in part to the legal segregation that was rampant at the time. In 1879, Ray returned to New York and became an educator in the Brooklyn public school system. Ray remained active in the National Association of Colored Women, and even attended the convention of the National Women Suffrage Association in 1876 to advocate for a woman’s right to vote. Ray passed away in 1911 and was buried in the family plot at Brooklyn’s Cypress Hill Cemetery.

 

In California, Annie Coker was the first African American woman to practice law. An Oakland native who was born in 1903, Coker would eventually attend the University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law. She received her B.S. degree (1924) and LL.B. (1929) from the same institution. By 1929, Coker became the first African American woman admitted to the California bar, though she eventually relocated to Alexandra, Virginia for better career prospects (Schiesl, 2015; Smith, 2000).

 

According to Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte, female attorneys in general had a difficult time finding employment at law firms—let alone African American women. In the case of Coker, as Judge Harbin-Forte described, the undertaking of a government job turned out to be the best option for her (McCarthy, 2008). Upon returning to California in 1939 and settling in Sacramento, Coker joined the State Office of Legislative Counsel as a junior deputy legislative counsel (Schiesl, 2015). Coker would retire in 1966 after having worked 27 years of distinguished service. You can find additional biographical details about Coker in my 2016 piece “Legacy of American Female Attorneys

 

Sources such as the State Bar of California’s piece Celebrating 75 Years state that Oscar Hudson (1876-1928) may have been the first African American man to practice law in California. Hudson was fluent in Spanish and Italian, and served as a Spanish-English translator during the Spanish-American War in 1898. In 1919, he began serving as the Foreign Consul of Liberia. Other resources state that Robert Charles O’Hara (R.C.O.) Benjamin was the first African American man admitted to the California bar (Smith, 1999).

 

According to The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia (2015), Benjamin was born in St. Kitts in 1855. During his childhood, Benjamin served on numerous trade ships before settling in New York City at the age of fourteen. Benjamin would enter journalism—first for the New York Star and then eventually as an editor and reporter for the Progressive American. Benjamin worked for the postal service in New York and as an educator in Kentucky before reading law in the office of Dave Smith. Benjamin was admitted to practice law in 12 states despite not having a formal legal education (he was admitted to California’s bar in 1888 when he relocated to the state). 

 

Benjamin thrived as an editor and writer in California. He was involved with the Los Angeles Observer, Los Angeles Daily Sun, and San Francisco Sentinel while also publishing works that condemned lynching. Benjamin eventually relocated with his family to Lexington, Kentucky where he worked as the editor for the Lexington Standard. He was murdered in 1900 by a man who had initially assaulted him during his efforts to help African Americans register to vote in Lexington. 

 

In terms of local history, sources such as Ret. Judge R. Michael Smith’s article “Solano County Oral Histories Ready for Legal History Museum” (2010) state that Lewis F. Brown was the first African American to practice law in Solano County. Brown also has the distinction of being Solano County’s first African American elected official to the Vallejo City Council (Bañes, 2013). Additionally, in 1967, Jet Magazine featured a piece about Brown that proclaimed that he was Vallejo’s first African American Vice Mayor. The photograph used of Brown and his family in the aforementioned piece is displayed in this blog posting (Jet Magazine, 32: 9, pg. 5). Check out Sharon McGriff-Payne’s book African Americans in Vallejo, which provides a fascinating account of Brown’s life (including his wife Dorothy), as well as his family photos.

 

It is known that Judge Ramona J. Garrett was the first female and first African American judge in Solano County’s history. According to the UC Davis School of Law, Judge Garrett grew up in a military family. She entered Santa Clara University at age 18 as a single mother, and earned her Bachelor Degree in Philosophy in 1974. She later attended the UC Davis School of Law, and passed the bar exam in 1980. Prior to her judgeship, Judge Garrett worked for Solano County’s District Attorney Office—eventually becoming a Chief Deputy District Attorney. Judge Garrett retired in 2015 after serving on the bench for more than twenty-five years (Sullivan, 2015).

 

Unfortunately, the first African American woman ever to practice law in Solano County is still a mystery. We want to hear from you. Do you know who Solano County’s first African American female lawyer was?

 

Any materials shared by Solano County Law Library is for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as legal advice. Please contact a lawyer for advice on specific legal issues.
 



 
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