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First African American Lawyers

First African American Lawyers

Walter Irvin Trial

Defense table at second trial of Walter Irvin,
charged with a capital crime, Ocala, Florida,
February, 1952.

In 1949, four Black men were tried for the kidnap and rape of a young woman in Groveland, Florida.  Even before the trial, a mob attacked the Black neighborhood in Groveland.  One of the suspects was killed in the attack; the other three were found guilty by an all-white jury.  Two were sentenced to death.  Another was later killed by a sheriff. The case became known as t he "Groveland Four."  After evidence mounted that the men were innocent, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial.  In 1952, Walter Lee Irvin (second from right) was represented in a second trial by NAACP attorneys Jack Greenberg (second from left) and Thurgood Marshall (right).  Again sentenced to death, Irvin spent 17 years in prison. A year after his release, Irvin died of a heart attack.  Source: Ben Burns Papers 704

The principal way in which lawyers were trained prior to the 20th Century was through apprenticeships. For a fee, apprentice lawyers would spend time at a law office reading law books and copying documents. Sometimes the apprentice was allowed to observe and ask questions. The earliest law schools evolved from this "apprenticeship for a fee" system and probably date back to the late 18th Century. Three early law apprentices were Robert Morris, William Henry Johnson and Edward Garrison Draper.

At the age of fifteen, Robert Morris was hired as a house servant by a white Boston lawyer. Impressed by Morris' abilities, the lawyer encouraged him to study law. In 1847, Robert Morris became the second African American to be admitted to practice in the United States.

William Henry Johnson's experience in law practice began when he was hired as a janitor in the offices of several lawyers. Johnson became interested in the law, served an apprenticeship with a white attorney named Francis L. Porter, and was admitted to practice in Massachusetts in 1865.

In 1857, Edward Garrison Draper became the first African American to be certified to practice law in Maryland. Because Maryland law required that lawyers be "free white citizens," Draper was ineligible on two counts: he was black and he was not considered a citizen. To get around this, Draper stated that he would not seek to practice in Maryland, but needed the certification in order to practice in Liberia, where he planned to emigrate.

During the early days of the United States, there was no uniform system by which lawyers were admitted to the practice of law in the United States. In most states, admission to practice in one court gave an attorney the right to practice before all courts within the state. In others, separate admission was required to practice before each court.

Admission procedures typically involved some form of oral examination. Initially, these examinations were administered by a judge. Often, when an African American applied to be admitted before a local court, it was thought to be such a novel event that the examination was held in open court before a crowd of curious onlookers. 

The following chart lists by state the first African Americans admitted to practice law.




Law School


Moses Wenslydale Moore 1871 Howard University
  Estelle A. Henderson 1919 none identified
Arizona Robert Lee Fortune 1921 none identified
Arkansas Thomas P. Johnson 1866 none identified
California Robert Chas. O'Hara Benjamin 1887 none identified
Virginia Stephens 1928 University of California
Colorado Edwin Henry Hackley 1883 University of Michigan
Connecticut Edwin Archer Randolph 1880 Yale University
Delaware Louis Lorenzo Redding 1929 Harvard University
D. C. George Boyer Vashon 1869 none identified
  Charlotte E. Ray 1872 Howard University
Florida Harvey S. Harmon 1869 none identified
Georgia James M. Simms 1871 none identified
  Rachel E. Pruden-Herndon 1943 none identified (1)
Hawaii Thomas McCants Stewart 1898 University of South Carolina
Idaho     none identified
Illinois Lloyd G. Wheeler 1869 none identified
  Ida G. Platt 1894 Chicago College of Law
Indiana Hiram R. Revels 1860 none identified
  Helen Elsie Austin 1930 University of Cincinnati
Iowa A. H. Watkins 1874 none identified
  Gertrude Elzora Darden Rush 1918 none identified
Kansas John H. Morris 1871 none identified
  Lutie A. Lytle 1897 Central Tennessee
Kentucky George A. Griffith 1871 none identified
  Nathaniel R. Harper 1871 none identified
Louisiana C. Clay Morgan 1860 none identified
Maine Macon Bolling Allen 1844 none identified
Maryland Everett J. Waring 1885 Howard University
Massachusetts Macon Bolling Allen 1845 none identified
  Blanche E. Braxton 1923 none identified
Michigan John C.McLeod 1870 none identified
  Grace G. Costavas 1923 Detroit College of Law
Minnesota Frederick L. McGhee 1889 Union Law School
  Lena Olive Smith 1921 Northwestern College
Mississippi James Henry Piles 1869 none identified
Missouri John H. Johnson 1871 none identified
  Dorothy L. Freeman 1942 Lincoln University
Montana John D. Posten 1890 none identified
Nebraska Silas Robbins 1889 none identified
  Zanzye H. A. Hill 1929 University of Nebraska
Nevada     none identified
New Hampshire     none identified
New Jersey George Jackson 1893 none identified
New Mexico Fred Simms 1890 none identified
New York George Boyer Vashon 1848 none identified
  Anna Jones Robinson 1923 New York University
North Carolina George Lawrence Mabson 1871 none identified
  Ruth Whitehead Whaley 1933 Fordham University
North Dakota     none identified
Ohio John Mercer Langston 1854 none identified (2)
  Daisy D. Perkins 1919 none identified (3)
Oklahoma Sugar George 1875 none identified
Oregon McCants Stewart 1903 University of Minnesota
  Beatrice Cannady 1921 Lewis &Clark University
Pennsylvania Jonathan Jasper 1865 none identified (4)
  Sadie T. Mossell Alexander 1927 University of Pennsylvania
Rhode Island John Henry Ballou 1874 none identified (5)
South Carolina Robert Brown Elliott 1871 none identified
  John P. Green 1871 Ohio Union Law School
  William Whipper 1871 none identified
  Jonathan Jasper Wright 1871 none identified (6)
  Cassandra E. Maxwell 1941 Howard University
South Dakota Will F. Reden 1908 University of Iowa
Tennessee Alfred Menefee 1868 none identified (7)
  William Henderson Young 1868 none identified
  William Frances Yardley 1868 none identified
  B. F. Bowles 1868  
  Lutie A. Lytle 1897 Central Tennessee
Texas A. W. Wilder 1873 none identified
Utah David H. Oliver 1931 Nebraska University
Vermont     none identified
Virginia Walthal G. Wynn 1871 Howard University
  Lavina Marian Fleming-Poe 1925 none identified
Washington     none identified
Wisconsin Everett E. Simpson 1888 University of Wisconsin
  Mable Watson Raimey 1927 Marquette University (8.)
Wyoming     none identified

The First African American Man & Woman Admitted to Argue Before the United States Supreme Court

Massachusetts John Swett Rock 1865 none identified
Illinois Violet Neatly Anderson 1926 Chicago Law School