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