Proud Legacy: Black Legal Tradition Is Rich in Achievement

By Ware, Reviewed Leland | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), October 3, 1993 | Go to article overview

Proud Legacy: Black Legal Tradition Is Rich in Achievement


Ware, Reviewed Leland, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


EMANCIPATION The Making Of The Black Lawyer 1844-1944 By J. Clay Smith Jr. Foreword by Thurgood Marshall 703 pages, University of Pennsylvania, $56.95

UNTIL NOW, the story of black lawyers was largely unknown. A few biographies have appeared in the wake of Justice Thurgood Marshall's death, and other books have been published that chronicle the lives of Charles Houston and William Hastie, two of the pioneer figures in civil rights litigation. The best known history, "Simple Justice" by Richard Kluger, tells the story of the school desegregation litigation that led to the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. Beyond these, one has to search through volumes of law journals to find a rare article or essay.

Despite this lack of attention, black lawyers have had an effect on American jurisprudence that extends far beyond what their meager numbers would suggest. Among other things, black lawyers conceived and implemented the long-range, carefully orchestrated legal strategy that revolutionized American law by eliminating state-sponsored racial segregation. Although the legacy of this accomplishment remains unfulfilled, it was a singular achievement that set in motion events that continue to affect the daily lives of most Americans.

The publication of "Emancipation" presents, at last, an in-depth study that carefully examines the development of black lawyers in America.

The author, a professor and former Dean of Howard University School of Law, takes readers on a tour of America as he examines the first 100 years in the development of black lawyers. "Emancipation " begins in New England, moves south to the mid-Atlantic states, and then travels farther south to states such as South Carolina and Georgia. From there the book heads west following the settlement of the Western territories and ends in the Pacific Northwest.

The result is a well-constructed text that includes an impressive array of cited sources and authorities. A remarkable piece of scholarship, "Emancipation" is not written in the dense, ponderous prose that makes most academic writing so difficult to enjoy. What it offers instead is a collection of dramatic stories that come alive on each page.

Smith informs us that the story of black attorneys in America begins in 1844, when Macon B. Allen was admitted to practice in Maine. Several African-American lawyers followed Allen when they gained admission to the bar and established practices. By the beginning of the Civil War, several African-American lawyers were practicing in the New England states.

The second phase in the history of black lawyers unfolded in 1869, the year that Howard University established a law department. The institution, which continues to play a unique role in higher education, became the laboratory of the civil rights movement in the 1930s and '40s. One year before Howard's law department was established, Harvard admitted its first African-American law student. Not long afterwards, black students graduated from Yale, Cornell, Columbia and other prestigious law schools. In fact, hundreds of black lawyers established thriving practices during the 19th century.

During the 1870s and 1880s, black lawyers often combined the representation of private clients with service in public offices. During this period, black lawyers held positions of considerable responsibility throughout the South. These included numerous judges and justices of the peace and at least one state Supreme Court justice.

The end of Reconstruction resulted in a dramatic decline of the fortunes of black lawyers in the South. …

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