Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Macon Bolling Allen
The nation’s first African American attorney battled racism to become immortalized in history
Almost 178 years ago, Macon Bolling Allen wrote himself into the history books when he passed the Maine Bar and became the first Black lawyer on July 3, 1844.
Born on August 4, 1816, about 40 years before slavery would be eradicated in the United States, he helped redefine what was possible with his impressive accomplishments.
Before becoming a lawyer, Allen worked as a schoolteacher. Sometime in the 1850s, he moved to Portland, Maine, where he began working for General Samuel Fessenden. Fessenden, an ardent abolitionist, and lawyer himself, employed Allen as a law clerk while he studied law. It was there that Allen prepared himself to change the course of history.
A famous anecdote about the Indiana native’s experience obtaining a license to practice law in Massachusetts tells of Allen walking almost 50 miles to take his examinations. Stories like these are hard to validate, but what is known is that Allen’s journey to becoming an attorney was met with early obstacles.
His initial attempt at gaining admission to the Maine Bar was rejected. Some accounts state the cause of his denial as not being a state citizen of Maine. Other accounts have the hostile court turning him away because some states did not consider African Americans citizens of the country.
Not to be denied, Allen applied for the bar by examination. Unsurprisingly, he passed the first time to become the first licensed African American attorney in the United States. While he passed the bar in Maine, Allen never practiced law there. Finding job opportunities hard to come by in the largely white town of Portland, Allen moved to Boston in 1845. That same year, he became the first Black American to practice law in the nation, and in October, is believed to be the first African American lawyer to argue before a jury.
In 1847, Allen became a Justice of the Peace in Middlesex County in Massachusetts, becoming the second African American person to hold a judicial position. Allen is believed to have been the second African American member of the country’s judiciary after Wentworth Cheswell.
After the Civil War, Allen moved to Charleston, South Carolina. There he helped form the first African American Law Firm in the United States, Whipper, Elliot, and Allen. He formed this firm with two other African American Lawyers, William Whipper, and Robert Brown. In 1873, South Carolinians elected him to a judicial post, appointing him a Judge of the Inferior Court of Charleston. The next year, he was elected as Probate Judge for Charleston County.
Allen moved to Washington D.C., in 1878 for further service to his country. He worked as a lawyer for the Land and Improvement Association until his death in 1894, leaving behind a massive legacy.
“Allen literally paved the way for every African American attorney that practices today,” President of the Black Lawyers Association of Cincinnati (BLAC) Remington Jackson shared.
“As we stand on the shoulders of the giant that is Mr. Macon B. Allen, we must recognize that we are far from the mountain top of diversity, inclusion, and equity that so many have fought for since our first Black attorney. Our mission is to ensure Judge Allen’s legacy lives on in our efforts to diversify the legal community,” Jackson said.
Adamson Ahdoot LLP Founding Partner Christopher Adamson also praised Allen’s impact.
“There is a direct lineage from Macon Bolling Allen to jurists like Thurgood Marshall and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Mr. Allen was a trailblazer who paved the way for all African-American attorneys following in his footsteps. Despite initially being denied admission to the bar, Mr. Allen persevered and ultimately gained admittance, though he faced a hostile examination committee. He also became the first black man in the U.S. to argue in front of a jury,” Adamson explained.
“Although his legacy might be lesser-known, it is of no less importance than other great figures in the pantheon of African-American history, and of particular importance to the legal community.”