The History Behind the First Black Woman SCOTUS Nominee
The life of Ketanji Brown Jackson
On Feb. 25, the White House confirmed that President Joe Biden is nominating Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Jackson, who currently serves as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and who the White House described as an “exceptionally qualified” nominee in a statement, is poised to become the first Black woman to serve on the nation’s highest court.
Though Black women are underrepresented as judges in the nation’s court system, Jackson’s nomination marks the latest milestone in a history of Black women lawyers that dates back 150 years. For many, civil rights was a major motivation for practicing law. With this in mind, TIME asked historians what women paved the way for this moment.
The history, they say, starts with Charlotte Ray, the first known Black woman lawyer in 1872, both in terms of earning a degree and getting a license to practice; Ray earned a law degree from Howard University and passed the District of Columbia’s bar exam. “She soon opened her own law firm, but because of segregation and pervasive gender prejudice, she could not attract enough clients to maintain her practice,” according to Henry Louis Gates’ Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008. Ray ended up moving to New York City and getting involved with the women’s suffrage movement and the National Association of Colored Women.
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