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From the Slave Quarters to the Courtroom: The Story of the First African American Attorney in the United States

Since J. Clay Smith’s publication of Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, it has been taken as gospel that Boston resident Macon Allen in 1844 became was the first African-American admitted to the bar to practice law in the United States.  Recently, as part of the celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the founding of the Massachusetts Superior Courts (the state’s highest trial court), doubt has been cast on that assertion.  It is quite clear that Attorney Allen was the first black person formally admitted to practice in Massachusetts and the nation in general.  However, a little known lawyer by the name of William Henry Johnson may actually have been the first African American eligible to practice law.  Mr. Johnson could have begun practicing in 1842.  He had qualified for that bar at that time.  However, for reasons that are unknown, he was not sworn in until 1865.

What is known about William Henry Johnson first came to our attention because he represented Charles Cuffee, a 13 year old juvenile who was charged with and convicted of murder in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1870.  Squire Johnson, as he was known by then, was asked by the Bristol County District Attorney George Marston to represent young Cuffee.  The Cuffee name should sound familiar because Charles was the great nephew of Paul Cuffee the famous African American sailing merchant.  Paul Cuffee owned a fleet of ships and sailed around the world bartering and trading.  He also earned enough money to purchase the freedom of various family members. 

William Henry Johnson was born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia on July 16, 1811.  He was the property of Andrew Johnson.  Small in stature, William Henry Johnson became a jockey.  Between 1827 and 1833, Johnson won numerous purses for his owner.  As a jockey, he had the opportunity to meet former presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  Both ex-presidents were so happy with Johnson’s performance on horses they wagered on that they each gave him a tip from their winnings. 

Unlike many