Forty-five years ago, President Gerald Ford called upon the public to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history." It was then he officially established February as Black History Month. President Ford's declaration was preceded by significant advocacy and the dedicated work of Carter G. Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland, who spent decades archiving and chronicling the achievements and accomplishments of historically significant Black and African-Americans. According to History.com:
The story of Black History Month begins in 1915, half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States.
That September, the Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and the prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of African descent.
Known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the group sponsored a national Negro History week in 1926, choosing the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The event inspired schools and communities nationwide to organize local celebrations, establish history clubs, and host performances and lectures.
Black Americans in the legal industry continue to make history today as the nation watched the first Black Asian-American woman be sworn-in as Vice President of the United States. As a former prosecutor, Vice President Kamala Harris is frequently quoted saying she "may be the first but certainly won't be the last." This sentiment is true across the board for the 14 Black lawyers identified by the American Bar Association Journal in the "14 Groundbreaking Black Lawyers" gallery. The following is an excerpt:
As the first African-American female lawyer in the United States, Charlotte E. Ray was a pioneer in her field from the beginning. Born in 1850 to an abolitionist father who owned the newspaper Colored American, Ray grew up around civil rights activism.
At age 19, she began teaching at Howard University, although her goal was to join the school's law program. She applied under the name "C.E. Ray" as a way to disguise her gender. After being admitted, she took classes and taught at the same time, until she graduated as the first black woman to receive a law degree. That same year, she was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, becoming the first woman to do so.
While she opened her own law firm, it was unsuccessful because of prejudice in the community, leading her to move to New York and become a school teacher instead. Ray also was active in the women's suffrage movement, through her involvement with the National Woman Suffrage Association and the National Association of Colored Women. She died of bronchitis in 1911.
While Ray achieved countless "firsts," it was Lucy Terry Prince who became the first African-American woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. You can read more about Lucy Terry Prince here.
Learn more about "Groundbreaking Black Lawyers" and Black History Month's origin in the links below.
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