{ subscribe_url: '/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/law.php' }

Robert H. Terrell, Municipal Judge

Robert H. Terrell (1857-1925), the first African American judge in the Washington, D.C. Municipal Court, was also an educator, a writer and a law professor; and husband to activist, suffragist and educator Mary Church Terrell. Terrell was born in rural Orange, Virginia and attended grammar school in D.C., Groton Academy in Massachusetts before graduating cum laude from Harvard in 1884. In the following years he earned his LL.B. and LL.M. from Howard University, and then he passed the bar in 1893.


Judge Robert H Terrell [photo from Black Past; in the public domain]

As he had difficulty finding work as a black attorney, he continued to teach, and also worked for five years as an auditor at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. He worked in D.C. public schools, and was the principal at Preparatory School for Colored Youth when his future wife Mary Church came to work there as a teacher. In 1901, President Roosevelt appointed Terrell as justice of the peace in D.C., aided by the influence of Booker T. Washington, and then reappointed him in 1906 (Smith, 137-138). Terrell also served as a minister, lectured on African American history, and published a book based on the text of his lecture as well. “When Congress reorganized the court system in the District of Columbia in 1909, President Taft appointed Terrell to one of the judgeships on the municipal court of the District of Columbia (Smith, 138).” When it came time to reappoint Terrell in 1912, he encountered opposition because of his race. Thomas L. Jones, a contemporary of Terrell’s, led the support of other black lawyers for Terrell’s nomination, and Jones wrote to President Wilson that “[the] 90,000 colored population of [the] District [of Columbia] deserved to have a person of color on the bench” (Smith, 138). Ultimately, Terrell’s appointment was confirmed, and he was sworn in again in April 1914 and then won a fifth term in 1918 (Smith, 138). He continued working as a judge and taught law at Howard until 1925.

Terrell experienced a stroke in 1921, and died in 1925 after suffering another stroke. He was an inspiration to many other educators and lawyers. The District of Columbia school system named a secondary school after him; an evening law school named the Robert H. Terrell Law School ran from 1931 until it closed 1950, and has many distinguished alumni.


Robert H. Terrell’s [former] burial site, at Rhode Island Ave. Metro stop [photo by J. Davis]


The Library holds Judge Terrell’s papers, and more information about them can be found here.

LC1161.R66az   Robert H. Terrell Law School. Miscellaneous printed matter.

E449.D16 vol. 18, no. 1 Terrell, Robert H. A Glance at the past and present of the Negro.

E185.86.G38 2000  Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of color : the Black elite, 1880-1920.

KF299.A35 S65 1993 Smith, J. Clay. Emancipation : the making of the black lawyer, 1844-1944.

Join Us on March 5 for a Webinar on the IMF, World Bank, and WTO

Please join us on March 5, 2020, at 2pm for the webinar “Profiling International Organizations: IMF, World Bank, WTO.” My colleague Elizabeth Boomer and I will provide insight into the history, structure, key functions, and current developments at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Elizabeth Boomer earned a […]

How to Become a Lawyer Without Going to Law School

No, I’m not suggesting just hanging up a shingle without taking the bar. To do so would result in needing to get your own defense attorney instead of becoming one, since the unauthorized practice of law is a felony in many states. I’m referring to “reading the law,” the process of becoming a lawyer by apprenticing […]

Únete para mejorar el acceso a documentos jurídicos de España con la campaña Herencia

[Haz clic aquí para la versión en inglés/Click here for the English version of this post.] Nos complace presentarles Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents, el primer proyecto de crowdsourcing dedicado a documentos en otros idiomas aparte del inglés.  La Biblioteca Jurídica del Congreso te invita a ayudarnos a mejorar el acceso a nuestra colección […]

Join the Library’s Herencia Campaign to Improve Access to Spanish Legal Documents

[Click here for the Spanish version of this post/Haz clic aquí para la versión en español.] We are excited to launch, in late February, the Library’s first crowdsourcing project dedicated to papers in languages other than English, Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents. The Law Library of Congress invites you to help improve access to […]

From the Serial Set: Before It Was Presidents’ Day…

The following is a guest post by Bailey DeSimone, a library technician (metadata) in the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. Correspondence between the Congress and the American public is essential in understanding legislative decision-making. Among the documents and journals of the Serial Set, we’ve discovered reprints of letters between Congress and the Washington family […]

A Congress.gov Interview with Owen Henry, Legislative Data Analyst

Today’s interview is with Owen Henry, a legislative data analyst in the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress. Describe your background.  My parents both worked for the Department of the Interior over in Foggy Bottom, so I grew up living around Washington, DC. I got a degree in political science from Oberlin College, then went […]

New Online Collection: Military Legal Resources

A new collection is now available on the law.gov website: Military Legal Resources. This collection includes material from the William Winthrop Memorial Library at the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) is the legal arm of the United States Army, established on July […]