One of the most important yet understated contributions of HBCUs were the emergence of Black law schools. Through Black law schools like Howard, Texas Southern, FAMU and NCCU, African Americans have actively fought for legal and economic empowerment, equality and better opportunities. Through these institutions and the efforts of their graduates, Blacks have been given a proportionate chance to gain admittance to law school, succeed in the professional sphere, and to practice law in America. This realization should not be taken lightly as Blacks are disproportionately victims of the judicial system, but misrepresented when it comes to having Black representation.
For African Americans, men like Charles Hamilton Houston, William Hastie, Fred Gray and Thurgood Marshall paved the path to the legal profession. These great African Americans, although Hastie and Houston were fortunate to receive their law degrees from Harvard, still faced immense discrimination and subsequently could only find jobs practicing or teaching through various avenues provided through HUSL and other Black law schools. These men took matters into their own hands, taking their talents to Black schools of law, the results were epic.
These schools also provided African American women the opportunities to enter the legal profession as well. One of the first female graduates was Charlotte E. Ray (class of 1872). Although Ray and other female graduates successfully passed the bar, they have not received much public notoriety as their male counterparts. However, many women continued to represent the name of HUSL and Black lawyers, women like Mary S. Carey, Ida G. Platt and Lutie A. Lytle.
In 1939, the North Carolina College for Negroes was awarded a charter from the general assembly for the purposes of establishing a law school. NCC served a unique function, offering African Americans who were previously barred from enrolling in nearby Duke or Chapel Hill a golden opportunity to receive a legal education. Since its founding, NCCU’s equivalent to Charles H. Houston, Dean Raymond C. Pierce has cultivated one of the highest achieving law schools along the Atlantic, black or white.
One of the most important organizations to emerge out of the Black law school movement was the Legal Defense Fund. Founded by Houston and others from Howard U, the LDF has been America’s legal counselor on issues of race, or as they viewed it “the legal arm of the civil rights movement.” Without these HBCU legal graduates, there would be no Murray v. Pearson, Sweatt v. Painter or Brown v. Board. Arguably the most famous case, Brown v. Board was led by double HBCU grad Thurgood Marshall (Lincoln, Howard.)
Today HBCUs remain an invaluable source for producing Black lawyers and Black legal professors. A study conducted by Ronald Ehrenberg details specifically how these schools remain a necessity. Let us always support our institutions and their historical legacies.