Macon Bolling Allen: America’s First African American Attorney
NDAA Black History Month Series: Celebrating Pioneering Figures in Justice
As we celebrate Black History Month, we’re featuring revolutionary and trailblazing figures whose lives and legal careers serve as a beacon of hope and a testament to perseverance. Our first spotlight is a figure of monumental significance in American legal history: Macon Bolling Allen. Allen’s extraordinary journey, characterized by unwavering resilience and relentless perseverance, shattered racial barriers and laid a foundation for future African American legal luminaries.
The Path to Law and Overcoming Barriers
Born a free man in 1816 in Indiana, Allen’s original name was Allen Macon Bolling. Little is known about his early life, which remains shrouded in the fog of history. However, we know that his quest for legal acumen began in Maine where he moved as an adult to study law in the offices of two white abolitionist lawyers, Samuel E. Sewall, and Samuel Fessenden.
In July 1844, after having submitted to a rigorous, protracted examination by the Committee of the Bar in Maine, Allen was admitted to practice law, becoming the first African American licensed to practice law in the United States. In an era when African Americans faced pervasive discrimination and exclusion from professional fields, Allen’s pursuit of a legal career was nothing short of audacious. Despite his qualifications and groundbreaking achievements, Allen’s journey was not without hardship. He faced racial prejudice and professional ostracism, often struggling to find clients, prompting Allen to relocate. Still, his commitment to justice and equality never wavered.
A Pioneering Jurist: From Attorney to Judge
Allen’s move to Massachusetts in 1845 marked another significant milestone. Here, he achieved the extraordinary feat of being appointed as a Justice of the Peace in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, becoming the first African American to hold a judicial position in the U.S. This appointment was more than a personal accolade; it was a testament to Allen’s legal acumen and a symbol of breaking racial barriers in the judiciary.
Following the Civil War, Allen and several other African-American lawyers and activists migrated South. In 1868, he joined Robert Brown Elliot and William J Whipper in Charleston, South Carolina, in establishing the first known African-American law firm in the country, representing clients of both races. In 1873, Allen was elected a judge of the Inferior Court by the South Carolina legislature before being elected to probate court where he served through 1878. Following his service, Allen returned to his legal practice in Charleston.
Legacy and Impact
Macon Bolling Allen’s legacy extends far beyond his life. He paved the way for future generations of African American attorneys and judges, demonstrating the power of determination and excellence in overcoming societal barriers. His story is a source of inspiration for all prosecutors, reminding us of the crucial role of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.
As we celebrate Black History Month, let us honor the memory of Macon Bolling Allen. His groundbreaking career in the judicial system is not just a historical footnote; it is a foundational chapter in the ongoing story of racial progress and equality in America’s legal system.
Coming Soon, Feb. 8: Next in our series, we’re spotlighting Charlotte E. Ray, the first African-American female attorney in the United States.
The National District Attorneys Association is committed to supporting and promoting prosecutors of diverse backgrounds. Learn more about the steps our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee is taking to support prosecutors in the field.