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A black and white portrait photo of Macon Bolling Allen, a Black man, wearing a suit.
Macon Bolling Allen, America’s first Black attorney. Used under Creative Commons License 4.0.

The History of the U.S. Bar Exam, Part II – The Gate Openers

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The following is a guest post by Katlin Kiefer, a former intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a graduate student in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

This post is a continuation of The History of the U.S. Bar Exam, Part I – The Law’s Gatekeeper.

Looking into the history of the bar exam not only provides context for the progression of legal training but also for how people of color and women broke through the discriminatory barriers over time. Notably, the following two figures became members of the bar while still facing legal oppression and disenfranchisement. These pioneers were prevented from practicing the law by discrimination, either because they faced difficulty obtaining clients or because they chose to forego practice for other causes.

Macon Bolling Allen

Macon Bolling Allen was the first ever Black man to be admitted to an American bar in 1844. Allen accomplished many firsts in his legal career, considered to be among the first ever Black judges, practicing lawyers, and law office owners. In 1816, Allen was born a free man in Indiana and he learned to read and write on his own, before working as a schoolteacher. In the early 1840s, he moved to Maine and joined the law firm of two white abolitionist lawyers, Samuel Fessenden and Samuel E. Sewall. Allen worked as a law clerk and studied the law for several years at the practice. In 1844, Fessenden advocated for Allen’s admission to the Maine bar by introducing him at the Portland District Court, but Allen was denied on the premise that he was not a legal “citizen” because he was Black. Citizenship for Black Americans born in the U.S. would not be ensured until the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment were passed following the Civil War.

Undeterred by this initial dismissal, Allen decided to apply for admission by examination. Maine’s law at the time stated that anyone “of good moral character” could be admitted to the bar. On July 3, 1844, with full recommendation from Fessenden, Allen received his license to practice law after passing the bar examination. The new lawyer was also declared a citizen of the state of Maine. Despite this, Allen would soon leave Maine for Boston, Massachusetts in 1845, primarily due to Maine’s predominantly white population refusing to hire him for representation.

Allen would find success in Boston by joining the Massachusetts bar the year he moved to the state, opening the first Black law practice with Robert Morris, Jr., and later passing another rigorous exam to become a justice of the peace in 1848 for a Massachusetts county. In addition to this position, Allen would go on to hold two judicial positions in South Carolina, after he traveled south to open another law practice following the Civil War. Allen moved to Washington, D.C., after Reconstruction to work as an attorney for the Land and Improvement Association. Macon Bolling Allen practiced law until his death at age 78 in 1894.

Arabella Mansfield

The first woman to ever be admitted to an American bar was Arabella Mansfield in 1869. Mansfield was school-educated as a child and would enroll at Iowa Wesleyan University in 1862. With the Civil War raging and men being absent, academia was inviting more women into their institutions. In the year following her graduation, she taught political science, history, and English at Simpson College, becoming one of the first female professors in the U.S.

Mansfield and her husband decided to join her brother Washington at his law office for two years of legal study to prepare for the bar exam. At the time, Iowa law restricted admittance to the bar to white males over the age of twenty-one. While white and of age, Mansfield would have technically been disqualified for her gender, but a liberal judge decided that the language of the law did not explicitly exclude Mansfield. In 1869, Mansfield passed the bar exam with high marks.

Mansfield would never work as a lawyer, continuing her professional career of teaching by being a professor of English at her alma mater Iowa Wesleyan College, and later as dean for the School of Art and School of Music at DePauw University in Indiana. She was heavily involved with the women’s suffrage movement in the 1870s, working with Susan B. Anthony and the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Mansfield brought the work home with her as a local leader, holding positions in the Iowa Suffrage Association. She also became a member of the National League of Women Lawyers in the 1890s, committing herself to the development of female lawyers.

Mansfield passed away in 1911 at the age of 65, nine years before women gained the right to vote via the 19th Amendment. Her legacy is still reflected in the legal world today. She is the namesake for the “Mansfield Rule,” a directive for diversity, established in 2017 by a collective of large law firms. The rule requires a commitment by the firms to have 30 percent of its leadership candidates be women and minority attorneys. This rule is modeled off of the “Rooney Rule,” implemented by the National Football League in 2003, which requires at least one minority to be among those interviewed for top team leadership positions. The Mansfield Rule seems to be making an impact as it spreads beyond the large law firms to other legal organizations and institutions, including the hiring considerations for law clerks by judges and the selection of mediators for alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

Update: An earlier version of this blog incorrectly listed Macon Bolling Allen‘s birth year as 1866.

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Comments (2)

  1. This is wonderful — I’d never heard Allen’s story or so much of Mansfield’s.

    There isn’t a place to suggest edits, but I think the piece identifies Allen as being born in 1866 (year of the Civil Rights act), when he was admitted to practice in 1844.

    Thank you, again for these.

  2. Macon Bolling Allen’s birth year is 1816 not 1866 as reflected in the first paragraph.

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