Celebrating Black History Month
February 8, 2021
In honor of Black History Month, Eckert Seamans is celebrating Black Legal Trailblazers who are powerful examples of leadership in the legal profession, helping to bring about change, progress, and inclusiveness.
Black Americans in the legal industry continue to make history today as Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn-in as the nation’s first female vice president, as well as the first Black American and first person of South Asian descent. As a former prosecutor, Vice President Harris is frequently quoted saying she “may be the first, but certainly won’t be the last.”
Please join us in learning more about Black Legal Trailblazers during Black History Month:
The first Black female judge in the United States
The first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School
The first Black woman admitted to the New York City Bar Association
The first Black woman to join the New York City Law Department
Jane Bolin was born in Poughkeepsie, NY on April 11, 1908 to Gaius Bolin and Matilda Ingram Emery, and was the youngest of their four children. Gaius Bolin was a lawyer and the first Black person to graduate from Williams College, while Matilda Emery was an immigrant from the British Isles who passed away when Bolin was just eight years old. Gaius practiced law in Duchess County for fifty years and was the first Black president of the Duchess County Bar Association.
Bolin graduated from a Poughkeepsie high school and sought enrollment at Vassar College, which was denied due to her race. At just 16 years old, she enrolled at Wellesley College where she became one of two Black freshmen. Ostracized by her white classmates, Bolin decided to room off-campus with the other Black freshman in her class. Bolin was top 20 in her class and applied to Yale Law School, despite being discouraged to do so by her career advisor, who told her, “there is little opportunity for women in law and absolutely none for a ‘colored one.’” Bolin maintained her class standing, graduated in 1928, and enrolled at Yale Law School where she was the only Black student and one of just three women. She earned her juris doctorate in 1931 and passed the New York State Bar Examination in 1932.
After graduating, Bolin practiced with her father in Poughkeepsie before accepting a position with the New York City Law Department. In 1933, she married fellow attorney Ralph E. Mizelle, who would go on to become a member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cabinet before passing away in 1943. Bolin herself ran unsuccessfully for the New York State Assembly as a Republican candidate in 1936 and despite the loss, gained a tremendous spotlight as a legitimate political candidate.
Three years later, at the New York World’s Fair, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed Bolin as a judge of the Domestic Relations Court at just 31 years old. She remained a judge of what would be renamed the Family Court for 40 years, her appointment renewed three times until she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. During her time on the bench, Bolin worked to encourage racially integrated child services, striving to guarantee that probation officers were assigned to cases without regard to race or religion. She also worked to ensure that publicly funded childcare agencies were required to aid in the adoption and fostering of children without regard to race or ethnicity. When asked by the New York Times in 1993 about her historic achievements, Bolin replied, “Everyone else makes a fuss about it, but I didn’t think about it and I still don’t…I wasn’t concerned about first, second or last. My work was my primary concern.”
Bolin also served as a legal advisor to the National Council of Negro Women and served on the boards of the NAACP, National Urban League, and Child Welfare League. She received honorary degrees from Tuskegee Institute, Williams College, Hampton University, Western College for Women, and Morgan State University for her efforts.
When Bolin retired in 1979, she never left public works and became a volunteer reading instructor in New York City public schools, while also serving on the Board of Regents and reviewing disciplinary cases. She is cited as an inspiration to the careers of judges Judith Kaye and Constance Baker Motley. Bolin passed away on January 8, 2007 in Long Island City Queens when she was 98 years old and is interred at the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery. A tribute to Bolin and her father, in the form of a mural, is on display at the Duchess County Courthouse in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Barbara C. Jordan
Barbara Charline Jordan was born on February 21, 1936 in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas. Her mother, Arlyne Patton Jordan, was a teacher in the community Baptist church, and her father, Benjamin Jordan, was the church’s Preacher. Jordan’s childhood was largely centered in the church as she followed in the tradition of her two elder siblings, Rose Mary Jordan McGowan and Bennie Jordan Cresswell. Even in her legal career, Jordan remained in keeping with family legacy as her maternal great-grandfather, Edward Patton, was one of the last Black members of the Texas House of Representatives during reconstruction and prior to the establishment of Jim Crow Laws that disenfranchised Black Texans and ultimately Black people in the United States.
Jordan graduated with honors from Phyllis Wheatley High School in 1952. She credits her decision to become an attorney to a speech that she heard early in her high school career, delivered by none other than Edith Spurlock Sampson. Due to segregation, Jordan was prohibited from attending the University of Texas at Austin and instead attended one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), Texas Southern University. She studied political science and history, pledged Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and graduated magna cum laude in 1956. Jordan went on to law school at Boston University, earning her juris doctorate in 1959.
Jordan taught at the Tuskegee Institute the year she earned her law degree and returned to Houston in 1960, where she opened a private law practice. She began her political career in 1962 when she campaigned for the Texas House of Representatives, which ultimately proved unsuccessful. Undeterred, she tried again without success in 1964, but in 1966, she won a seat in the Texas Senate, becoming the first Black senator in the state since 1883 and the first Black woman to ever hold the seat, until June of 1972. She quickly earned her colleagues’ respect when she worked to pass a state minimum wage law that protected farmworkers. She supported the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as its expansion that protected the rights of Hispanics in Texas, which was opposed at the time by Governor Dolph Briscoe and Secretary of State Mark White. Jordan was the first Black woman elected by her colleagues to serve as president pro tempore of the state senate. She also served for one day as acting governor of Texas, the standing tradition on the last day of a senator’s term, making her the only Black woman to serve as governor of a state. While serving as part of the Texas legislature, she co-sponsored and sponsored at least 70 bills.
Jordan’s political career continued in 1972 when she was elected to the United States House of Representatives, becoming the first woman elected in their own right to do so. In 1973, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and continued her political career while battling the disease in silence. She received enormous support from her friend and mentor Lyndon B. Johnson, who helped her secure a position on the House Judiciary Committee. In 1974, Jordan made a televised speech before that same committee supporting the impeachment of Richard Nixon. It is celebrated by many as one of the greatest speeches in American history, as Jordan firmly stood by the Constitution, lauded its system of checks and balances, and never outright stated her desire for impeachment, but rather implied her position through her points and explication. Jordan stated facts in her speech, coupled with quotes from those who wrote the Constitution and earned national praise for “rhetoric, morals, integrity and wisdom.” The following year, she was appointed by then-Speaker of the House, Carl Albert, to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.
Jordan became the first Black woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 1976, garnering attention as a potential running mate to Jimmy Carter. Despite never being a candidate, Jordan did indeed receive one delegate vote for president at the convention. Jordan showed support for the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which required banks to make services and lending available to underserved, poor, and marginalized communities. Jordan also authored an act that ended federal authorization of price-fixing by manufacturers. While serving, Jordan co-authored or authored more than 300 bills or resolutions, several of which remain in effect today.
She retired from politics three years later in 1979, becoming an adjunct professor of ethics at the University of Texas Austin, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. In 1992, she again served as a keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention. In 1994, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and she was presented the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP. Jordan was honored numerous times throughout her life, earning more than 20 honorary degrees from colleges and universities, including Harvard and Princeton. She was also elected into both the Texas and National Women’s Hall of Fame. From 1994-1996, Jordan chaired the U.S. Commission on immigration reform. She died of pneumonia that developed as a complication of leukemia on January 17, 1996, in Austin, Texas. She is buried in the Texas State Cemetery among the state’s governors, senators, and Congress members, becoming the first Black person to rest there.
Robert P. Smalls
One of the first Black people elected to Congress and Founder of the Republican Party of South Carolina
Author of legislation that provided for South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school education system in the United States
Robert P. Smalls was born on April 5, 1839 to Lydia Polite, who was enslaved by Henry McKee (his father). Born in a cabin behind McKee’s house, which still stands in Beaufort, South Carolina, he grew up surrounded by the influences of his mother’s culture and family, who were Lowcountry Gullah. Fearful that Robert would be treated differently as McKee’s son, and would not understand the gravity of the situation for those enslaved in the fields, she asked that he work in the fields and witness whippings. When he was 12, his mother requested that his father send him to Charleston to be hired out as a laborer, allowing him to earn one dollar per week, while the rest of the wage was given to his father. Smalls worked numerous jobs, including several in the shipyards, eventually becoming a helmsman, though his status as an enslaved person prohibited him from formally holding the title. He gained invaluable knowledge of the Charleston harbor, which would prove critical in the years to come.
In 1856, Smalls married an enslaved woman named Hannah Jones, who was five years his senior and had two daughters. They welcomed a third child, Elizabeth Lydia Smalls and a son, Robert Jr. (who died of small pox when he was only two). Robert worked to purchase his family’s freedom, but at $800 (about $23,000 today), the price was practically insurmountable.
As the Civil War commenced with the Battle of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, Smalls was assigned to steer a Confederate military transport, the CSS Planter, under the command of Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley. The vessel delivered dispatches, supplies, and troops, and also surveyed the waterways and laid mines. Smalls piloted the vessel, learning and successfully mapping the waters along the way, earning the crew’s confidence.
One year into his assignment, Smalls began to plan an escape with other members of the crew. On May 12, 1862, the three white officers of the Planter decided to spend the night ashore, leaving the vessel in the capable hands of Smalls, as they’d done numerous times before. Smalls seized the opening, asking if the crew’s families could visit, and his request was granted. At approximately 3:00 a.m. on May 13, the Planter crewmen made their escape as Smalls donned the captain’s uniform and displayed hand and boat signals to make it through the harbor checkpoints, passing Fort Sumter around 4:30 a.m. The alarm was only raised long after the Planter was out of gun range. Smalls steered toward the Union Navy fleet of vessels, flying a white bed sheet his wife brought for the event. The captain of the Onward spotted and boarded the Planter, and Smalls surrendered the vessel and its cargo to the U.S. Navy, which included the captain’s codebook containing the Confederate signals and a map of the mines in Charleston Harbor. Smalls relayed his extensive knowledge of the waterways to Officer Du Pont, commander of the blockading fleet. The intelligence led to the Union capturing Coles Island without a fight. DuPont was impressed by Smalls, noting that he was as “superior to any who have come into our lines – intelligent as many of them have been.” Smalls’ knowledge helped Union forces advance in over 17 engagements.
Smalls became an overnight hero in the North, and the U.S. Congress passed a bill awarding Smalls and his men the prize money for the Planter. Smalls was recruited by DuPont to serve in the Union Navy but eventually wound up in Washington, D.C., where he was sent to help former slaves at Port Royal. With assistance and influence from Smalls, Secretary of War Edward Stanton ultimately signed an order that permitted up to 5,000 Black men to enlist in the Union forces at Port Royal, recognized as the 1st and 2nd South Carolina “Colored” Regiments. Smalls continued to serve in the Navy, becoming captain of the Planter from 1863-1864.
In 1864, Smalls was voted an unofficial delegate to the Republican National Convention. Later that spring, he took the Planter to Philadelphia for an overhaul, where he also learned to read and write. While in Philadelphia and riding on a streetcar, Smalls was asked to vacate his seat for a white passenger. This incident of degrading a veteran who’d been so instrumental in the war was later cited in the decision to integrate public transportation in Pennsylvania.
Immediately after the war, Smalls returned to Beaufort and purchased his father’s former home, which had been seized in 1863 for failure to pay taxes. McKee sued to regain his ancestral seat but lost the case to Smalls in court, setting a precedent for other similar cases to follow. Smalls’ mother Lydia lived in the house with him for the remainder of her life, and later, Smalls permitted McKee’s wife, Jane Bond McKee, who had fallen destitute, to move back into the home, where he allowed her to behave as lady of the house until she died.
Smalls went on to open a store that served the needs of freedmen, investing in the Charleston-Beaufort area’s economic development. In 1870, anticipating post-reconstruction prosperity, Smalls, Joseph Rainey, Alonzo Ransier, and others formed an 18-mile horse-drawn railway called the Enterprise Railroad that carried cargo back and forth throughout the region. Except for one white member, the railroad’s board of directors was comprised entirely of Black men.
Smalls served as a delegate at the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention. His ability to speak the Sea Island Gullah Dialect bolstered his popularity among the region’s constituents. Later that year, he was elected to the state’s House of Representatives, introducing the Homestead Act and working to pass the Civil Rights bill. In 1870, when Jonathan Jasper Wright was elected to judge the South Carolina Supreme Court, Smalls was elected to fill his unexpired Senate time. He won the 1872 election against W. J. Whipper and served on the Finance committee and as chairman of the Public Printing Committee. In 1874, Smalls was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served two terms. He represented South Carolina’s 5th congressional district in the House. He opposed a transfer of troops from the South one year later, fearing for the safety of the Black people still there, introducing an amendment to the bill that ordered the transfer. Smalls was the second-longest serving Black member of Congress until the mid-20th century.
With the Compromise of 1877, the U.S. government withdrew its remaining forces from the South. Groups of Conservative Southern Democrats known as the Bourbon Democrats, Red Shirts and members of the Ku Klux Klan coordinated intimidation tactics, gerrymandering and redistricting to regain control of the legislature. A large-scale effort was put forth by white politicians to reduce Black political influence and power, and Smalls was charged with and found guilty of taking a bribe five years prior as part of being awarded a printing contract, but was ultimately pardoned. Still, the damage to his career was done, and Democrat George D. Tillman, known for his aggressive and at times violent rhetoric, defeated him in future elections. Smalls was later elected in other districts and, in 1890, was appointed by President Harrison as the collector of the Port of Beaufort. Until the end of his career, he remained a staunch and vocal opponent to the disenfranchisement of Black citizens.
Smalls passed away in 1915 at age 75. He was buried in the family plot at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina. The monument to Smalls in the churchyard, in his own words reads, “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”