Black History Month: Celebrating a Nation of Firsts

Black History Month is a time to celebrate the achievements of African Americans in a world that has frequently ignored and shunned them. Although it started in 1925 as Negro History Week, the vast contributions made by African Americans couldn’t be denied. By 1976, President Gerald R. Ford urged all Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”1 That year marked the very first Black History Month. 

Diversity in the legal field has always been scarce, but the legacy left behind by our forebears is undeniable. This Black History Month, we want to honor two of the influential firsts who paved the way for Black female lawyers.

Charlotte E. Ray – Charlotte E. Ray is considered the country’s first Black female lawyer.2 Not only that, she was one of the few women practicing law in the United States at the time.3 Charlotte graduated from Howard University and gained admission to practice law in New York in 1872.4 Her most well-known case is her success in a domestic violence case representing Martha Gadley, a Black woman petitioning for divorce from her abusive husband.5 It should be noted that domestic violence cases were also extremely rare at the time.6 Unfortunately after that, not much is known about Charlotte’s legal practice due to the prejudice she received both as a woman and as a Black person.7 Regardless, Charlotte remained an active advocate for women’s suffrage and equality for Black women, having joined the National Association of Colored Women and attending an annual convention for the National Woman Suffrage Association.8 Today, there are multiple awards made in Charlotte’s name, including The Annual Charlotte E. Ray Award from the Greater Washington Area Chapter of the Women Lawyers Division of the National Bar Association and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association’s Charlotte E. Ray Award.9 

Jane Bolin – Jane Bolin is most commonly known as the first Black female judge in the United States.10 In addition, Jane was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School in 1931, as well as the first to work in the office of corporate counsel for New York City.11 After graduating from Yale, Jane worked in New York’s Family Court, challenging segregationist policies that affected those she represented, such as assignment of probation officers on the basis of race.12 By 1939, Jane was invited to the World’s Fair before Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, where she was sworn in as this country’s first Black female judge.13 Jane continued to uplift her community by serving on the boards of several organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the New York Urban League.14 Throughout her life, Jane remained a vocal advocate for women’s rights, having stated that: “We have to fight every inch of the way and in the face of sometimes insufferable humiliations.”15

Charlotte E. Ray and Jane Bolin are just two of many Black womxn who gave a voice to the voiceless and laid the foundation for other Black female lawyers today. We’ve come a long way, but there’s further still to go. In 2022, only 10.15% of total lawyers in the United States were womxn of color. Of that, only 2.12% were Black womxn.16 Honoring those that came before us and educating others of the struggles we have faced and still face is a great start to increasing diversity. Help us further, by supporting organizations such as National Womxn of Color Collective so we can provide a safe space for womxn of color as they pursue their legal journeys.

We celebrate all Black womxn who have raised their voice to make a change, and we hope to continue following in their footsteps to create a positive impact.

By Alexandra Mayo, Esq.


    1. About Black History Month, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, (last visited Fed. 25, 2023).
    2. Erin Blakemore, Charlotte E. Ray’s Brief But Historic Career as the First U.S. Black Woman Attorney, HISTORY (Aug. 22, 2018),
    3. Id.
    4. Id.
    5. Id.
    6. Id.
    7. Id.
    8. Taryn Darling, Charlotte E. Ray (1850-1911), BLACK PAST (Nov. 16, 2010),
    9. Id.
    10. Editors, Jane Bolin Biography, BIOGRAPHY.COM (Apr. 21, 2021),
    11. Id.
    12. Id.
    13. Id.
    14. Id.
    15. Douglas Martin, Jane Bolin, the Country’s First Black Woman to Become a Judge, Is Dead at 98, THE NEW YORK TIMES (Jan. 10, 2007),
    16. Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms 2022, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR LAW PLACEMENT (Jan. 2023),

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