The MessaLaw Blog is spending the month of February honoring the achievements and contributions of African Americans to America’s legal system. Today is February 1st, the first day of Black History Month, and as a celebration of beginnings, we will discuss America’s first black lawyer; Macon Bolling Allen.
Macon Bolling Allen is believed to be the first black man in the United States admitted to the bar and licensed to practice law.
Allen was born in 1816 (as Allen Macon Bolling) in Indiana and grew up a free man. He taught himself to read and write and used these self-developed skills to gain a job as a school teacher, using the position as an opportunity to refine his skills even further.
In the early 1840’s, Allen left Indiana for Portland Maine, where he changed his name and befriended a local attorney, abolitionist, and politician, General Samuel Fessenden. General Fessenden had recently started his own law practice and took Allen on as an apprentice/law clerk. By 1844, after four years of study, observation, and field experience, General Fessenden introduced Allen to the Portland District Court and vouched for him as a worthy candidate for the bar. Initially, Allen was rejected on the grounds that he was not a Maine citizen. He decided to apply for admission by examination, passing the bar exam in 1844. After passing the exam and earning his recommendation, Allen was declared a citizen of Maine and given a license to practice law on July 3, 1844.
Finding work as an attorney in Maine proved to be a difficult task. White people weren’t willing to hire a black man to represent them in court, and few black men were able to hire Allen as their legal counsel. A year after Allen received his Maine license to practice law, he moved to Boston, Massachusetts in search of work. He passed the Massachusetts bar exam in May 1845 and, according to some sources, opened the first black law office in the United States alongside fellow black attorney, Robert Morris, Jr. Robert Morris, Jr. was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1847 and is credited as the first African American lawyer to file a law suit in the U.S. and the first African American lawyer to win a lawsuit in the U.S.
Allen’s achievements wouldn’t stop there. In 1848, he passed an exam to become a Justice of the Peace for Middlesex County, Massachusetts, making him the first black man to hold a judiciary position in the U.S. After the Civil War, Allen moved to South Carolina to open a new legal practice and in 1873 received an appointment as Inferior Court Judge in Charleston. A year later, he was elected Judge Probate in Charleston County, South Carolina. Some sources state that the legal practice he opened in South Carolina, alongside partners William J. Whipper and Robert Brown Elliot, was the first black law firm in the U.S., denying that he and Robert Morris ever even met.
Allen would make one final move to Washington, D.C., where he worked as an attorney for the Land and Improvement Association. He held his position with the association until his death on October 10, 1894.
Not much is recorded about Macon Bolling Allen’s private life. He met his wife, Hannah, in Boston, and they raised five sons: John, Edward, Charles, Arthur, and Macon, Jr. John, Edward, and Macon Jr. all became schoolteachers, according to census reports. The career paths of Charles and Arthur aren’t quite as clear. Many sources say that after his death, Allen was survived by his wife Hannah, and one son, Arthur. It’s possible that his other sons fought and died in the Civil War. A search within the National Park Service database of Union Civil War soldiers revealed that the 5th Regiment, Massachusetts Cavalry of Black Soldiers included a Charles B. Allen (Company A), John Allen (Company G), and Edward Allen (Company F). The regiment lost a total of 123 enlisted men, seven of them in battle and 116 to disease. It is possible that these are the sons of Macon Bolling Allen, but because these names were so common at the time, it’s possible that these were other men.
Macon B. Allen’s initial admittance to the Maine bar in 1944 and subsequent move into politics paved the way for black men in the United States to not only become lawyers, but to open law firms, enter the Judiciary, and be revered as leading members of the community. His achievements are so important to the advancement of African Americans after the Civil War and we honor his lifetime of hard work, dedicated to his country and his fellow man.
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