Macon Allen made history by becoming the nation’s first Black lawyer and the first to hold a judicial position, all this at a time when Blacks, according to the U.S. Constitution, were not considered citizens.
A. Macon Bolling was born free in Indiana in 1819, the same year that the state became the 19th to join the Union. The details of his early life are unclear, but it is known that he taught himself to read and write and became good enough at it to land a job as a schoolteacher.
He moved to Portland, Maine, where he changed his name to Macon Bolling Allen. Maine joined the Union in 1820 as a free state in which slavery was illegal. Allen was a staunch anti-slavery advocate.
Allen became friends with Gen. Samuel Fessenden, a local anti-slavery leader. Fessenden had a law practice and took Allen in as an apprentice and law clerk. Allen became so skilled that in 1844, Fessenden introduced his apprentice to Portland’s District Court and proposed that Allen be allowed to practice as a lawyer.
Maine law, at the time, stated that anyone of good moral character could be admitted to the bar. Allen was rejected because, as a Black man, he was not considered a citizen. Allen got around that by applying to be admitted by examination, which he passed.
On July 3, 1844, Allen was formally declared a citizen of Maine and, after paying $20 to the Treasury of Maine, was granted a license to practice law, becoming the nation’s first Black lawyer. Finding work, however, was another story. There were hardly any Blacks living in Maine, and few whites were willing to hire a Black lawyer to represent them.
In 1845, Allen moved to Boston, Mass., hoping to advance his career as a lawyer. He found getting to the testing site nearly as difficult as the exam itself; he was so poor that he couldn’t afford transportation and had to walk some 50 miles to take the exam. Despite enormous fatigue, he passed the Massachusetts bar exam and was admitted to the bar on May 3 of that year.
It was in Boston that he met and married his wife, Hannah. The couple had five sons, John, Edward, Charles, Arthur and Macon B. Allen Jr., all of whom became schoolteachers.
Though Allen had passed two bar exams in two different states, racial prejudice still made it hard to find work despite a busy legal scene in Boston. He wrote to New York abolitionist John Jay about possibly relocating to New York to escape the “peculiar custom of the New England people.” In 1848, Allen passed a third rigorous exam and became justice of the peace for Middlesex County, Mass., the nation’s first Black to hold a judicial position.
In 1868, Allen moved to Charleston, S.C., in search of more opportunities to practice law. He became a partner in the law firm of William J. Whipper and Robert Brown Elliot, the first Black law firm in the United States. He also became an active member of the Republican Party.
In 1873, he was appointed judge in the Inferior Court of Charleston and, in 1876, was elected judge probate for Charleston County, S.C. Allen’s next move was to Washington, D.C., where he served as an attorney for the Land and Improvement Association.
Macon B. Allen died on Oct. 10, 1894, ending a groundbreaking career of legal service that spanned 50 years. He was 78 years old.
- Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the life of Macon Allen and other famous Black lawyers.
- Talk About It: Allen was a self-taught student, making his accomplishments all the more impressive. What are some of the obstacles you think Allen faced as he pursued his goal of becoming a lawyer?
- Write It Down: Make a list of qualifications that you feel are necessary to be a good lawyer.
This Week in Black History
- May 5, 1867: Blacks in New Orleans staged a “ride-in” to protest segregated streetcars.
- May 8, 1925: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a trailblazing Black labor union, was formed by A. Philip Randolph.
- May 10, 1994: Nelson Mandela becomes the first democratically elected president of South Africa.