Freedom Center tells story of nation’s first African American lawyer

CINCINNATI – Few individuals can stake such a long list of firsts in American legal history as Macon Bolling Allen, including, most notably, the first African American licensed to practice law. And while Allen may not yet be a household name, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is making his accomplishments known. Macon Bolling Allen: The First African American Lawyer in the United States is now open at the Freedom Center.

Macon Bolling Allen was born in Indiana in 1816 and later moved to Boston in 1844 and then Maine. In Maine, Allen served as a law apprentice to a prominent attorney with anti-slavery views who advocated for Allen’s admission to the Maine bar. His admission was denied based on the grounds he was not a legal “citizen” at all because he was African American. However, Allen persisted and was admitted to the Maine bar on July 3, 1844, becoming the first practicing African American lawyer in the United States. It was the start of many firsts as an African American in the U.S.: first practicing lawyer in Massachusetts (1845), first justice of the peace (1848) and first all-African American law firm with William Whipper and Robert Elliott in South Carolina (1868).

With few residents in predominately white Portland, Maine seeking out an African American to represent them legally – and much of the African American population unable to afford representation – Allen moved back to Boston to seek better job opportunities. Following the Civil War, Allen moved to Charleston, South Carolina to be of service to formerly enslaved people in the South. He was appointed a criminal court and probate judge in Charleston County in 1873 and 1876, defeating the white incumbent. Following the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Allen moved to Washington, DC where he worked for a firm called the Land and Improvement Association.

On display in Macon Bolling Allen is an attachment bond signed by Allen in 1878 while he served as a probate judge. The document is on loan to the Freedom Center courtesy of Kenneth and Cheryl Parker.

Allen’s influence loomed large in his lifetime and lived on after his death in 1894. His inspiration and example are as important today as they were in the 19th century. Nationally, less than 3% of law partners are Black and only 3% of registered attorneys in the state of Ohio are Black. Of the 242 total partners in Cincinnati, 4% are people of color and even fewer (1.65%) are women of color. The Freedom Center and local organizations are hoping to increase diversity in a legal system still suffering from issues of systemic racism.

“Macon Allen literally paved the way for every African American attorney that practices today,” said Remington Jackson, president of the Black Lawyers Association of Cincinnati (BLAC). “Our mission is to ensure Judge Allen’s legacy lives on in our efforts to diversify the legal community.”

Macon Bolling Allen: The First African American Lawyer in the United States is included with admission and open at the Freedom Center through March 31.

About the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in August 2004 on the banks of the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. Since then, more than 1.3 million people have visited its permanent and changing exhibits and public programs, inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom. Two million people have utilized educational resources online at freedomcenter.org

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