Continue reading Feb. 25The White House has confirmed that President Joe Biden will be nominating Ketanji Brown JacksonThe U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Jackson, who currently serves as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and who the White House described as an “exceptionally qualified” nominee in a statement, is poised to become the first Black woman to serve on the nation’s highest court.
Black women, however, are underrepresented as judges in the nation’s court system, Jackson’s This nomination is the latest in a 150-year history of Black female lawyers. Civil rights were a significant motivation to many people who chose to become lawyers. TIME asked historians about the role of women in paving the way to this point.
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They say that history begins with Charlotte Ray, the first known Black woman lawyer in 1872, both in terms of earning a degree and getting a license to practice; Ray earned a law degree from Howard University and passed the District of Columbia’s bar exam. “She soon opened her own law firm, but because of segregation and pervasive gender prejudice she could not attract enough clients to maintain her practice,” according to Henry Louis Gates’ These Shores: An Overview of African American History from 1513 through 2008. Ray ended up moving to New York City and getting involved with the women’s suffrage movement and the National Association of Colored Women.
The same challenges faced Lutie Litle. First Black woman law professor Teaching for one year at Central Tennessee University in Nashville from 1898 to 1899, but also later moved to New York to work for suffrage activists because she couldn’t find any clients as an attorney in the South, according to Omar H. Ali’s In the Lion’s Mouth: Black Populism in the New South, 1886-1900. “The anchor of my race is grounded on the Constitution,” Lytle An 1897Interview. “It is the certificate of our liberty and our equality before the law.”
After World War II broke out, Black women became lawyers. “Spaces had opened up at law schools because of World War II,” says Virginia L. Summey, historian and author ofElreta Melton Alex: Courts and Activism.
Elreta M. Alexander was one of these beneficiaries. She was the first Black woman in history to be admitted at Columbia Law School. In her native Greensboro in North Carolina she practiced law. Her best-known case, in 1964, was when she defended the four Black men accused in raping a woman. Even though the case was lost, she used the trial to highlight race-based jury selection processes They are still prevalent in America today.In 1968, she was elected as the first Black female judge of the district court. (In 1974, Alexander ran for Chief Justice of North Carolina’s Supreme Court, but lost out to a fire extinguisher salesman with no legal expertise—in response, the state amended its Constitution to say candidates had to have a law degree.)
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Another noteworthy predecessor to today’s Supreme Court nominee is Jane Bolin, who was First Black woman ever to be a judge in 1939, presiding over New York City’s Domestic Relations Court—which was renamed Family Court in 1962—until 1978. “Bolin often administered a brand of justice that recognized the racism and structural inequalities that Black youth faced, and she joined a handful of Black reformers who demanded that whites treat them more fairly,” as the historian Carl Suddler described her tenure in Prejudiced Criminal: The Justice System in Postwar New York and Black Youth
“Black women lawyers were so unusual and so stereotyped that they [had to] exude competency,” Kenneth Mack, author of Representing the Race: Creation of Civil Rights Lawyer. “Some stereotypes related to sexualization. Others also implied that the lawyers weren’t intelligent enough. So, I would say that they held themselves to higher standards than did the other lawyers with whom they interacted.”
Bolin and other figures served as an example for future generations of female lawyers.
Constance Baker Motley is one such woman. Motley, who was active in cases of school desegregation during the 20th century, worked with Constance Baker Motley. Brown v. Board of Education (1954), alongside future U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, as the only woman on the NAACP’s legal defense team. Also, she defended James MeredithHis successful lawsuit to become the University of Mississippi’s first Black student (1962). The first Black woman known to argue at the U.S. Supreme Court, Motley argued 10 cases—and won nine of them. She was the first Black woman to be elected a federal judge in 1966.
She presided over the following cases: Blank v. Sullivan & Cromwell Women were able to fill more law firm jobs. Kamala Harris is the Vice President of Kamala Harris. She was a former California Attorney general. “inspired me from a young age to fight for the voiceless and for justice.”
One of Harris’s predecessors, Pauli Murray, was the first Black woman Attorney General of California. Murray is best known for her 1965 article “Jane Crow and the Law” on the laws that restricted what women could do and how the restrictions differed based on race. In 1966, she was also the co-founder and first president of National Organization for Women. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a former U.S. Supreme Court Justice, would frequently credit Murray with shaping her 1970s work on sex discrimination.
“All of these women, from Jane Bolin to Pauli Murray to Constance Baker Motley experienced discrimination and exclusion themselves,” says Tomiko Brown-Nagin, author of Constance Baker Motley: Queen of Civil Rights, and the Struggle for Equality, “and it’s because of that and the broader context in which the NAACP started to litigate cases attacking discrimination in education that these women themselves turned to the law and developed a passion for equal protection under law. Even as they continue to be victims of discrimination, they fought for others, for equality.”
Mack states that the 2022 appointment of a Black Supreme Court Justice is significant because it speaks volumes about American values. As he puts it, “At a time where what Americans should be is very much under assault, and being questioned. There’s racial division. Extremist views of racial nature are increasing. A Black woman on the Supreme Court would be a symbol of what America is and what America should be.”