In the mid-19th century, Macon Bolling Allen, a young schoolteacher from Indiana, came to Maine with the aspiration of becoming the first African American lawyer in the United States. In April 1844, while working in the law office of Portland abolitionist lawyer Samuel Fessenden, he  sought admission to the bar.

Overcoming racial hostility, he was admitted in Portland in July. Soon thereafter he was in Boston applying to the Massachusetts bar on the motion of Samuel E. Sewall, a Boston abolitionist lawyer. Contemporaneous correspondence from Fessenden to Sewall refers to Allen as “our friend & protégé.” It expresses some concern about Fessenden’s responsibility for Allen’s bond “while here,” and concludes: “I incline to think Portland is not exactly the place for our friend.”

Did Fessenden, Sewall and Allen have a strategy at work in the move between Maine and Massachusetts? Here’s what happened in Maine.

According to the May 2, 1844, edition of The Brunswicker, Fessenden moved to admit Allen to practice in Portland District Court in April “under the new law, which makes all citizens of good moral character eligible to admission.” The newspaper reports the court denied Allen’s application “on the ground that the candidate was not in fact a citizen.”

Some commentators have concluded this rejection was a precursor to the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision that African Americans could never be U.S. citizens. That conclusion seems suspect, because Maine’s constitution didn’t limit its protections to white citizens; indeed, during the adoption debate, a clause to deny voting rights to “Negroes” was rejected; Dred Scott itself recognized Maine as the only state where “the African race, in point of fact, participate(s) equally with the whites in the exercise of civil and political rights.”

Others say the Portland court initially denied Allen’s application because he simply hadn’t yet attained citizenship in Maine. That explanation seems more likely. In January 1844 Allen had changed his name in Massachusetts (from A. Macon Bolling) on the basis that he then was “of the city of Boston, in the County of Suffolk.” The Brunswicker reported that in Fessenden’s April motion, he “moved that a colored gentleman from Boston, who was then with him, be admitted to practice as an Attorney and Counsellor at Law in the Courts of this State.” The Portland American reported Allen’s application was refused at that time “on the ground that the applicant was not a citizen of Maine, in the contemplation of said act.” In other words, Allen’s Boston connection may have led the court to conclude he wasn’t yet a Maine citizen. In fact, The Brunswicker predicted that a “successful application will probably be made at the October term.”

Regardless, the Portland court’s April denial didn’t deter Allen. He applied to be admitted on examination instead, a route where citizenship wasn’t required. According to Fessenden’s letter to Sewall, Allen “submitted to a careful, and protracted examination by the Committee of the Bar.” His bar admission wasn’t easy. Fessenden said the examining committee “did their duty though I could perceive, they did not wish him to be admitted.” Allen “was not admitted . . . without strenuous opposition from John Rand, Esq, one of the Committee, who refused to attend to his examination, and Augustine Haines, Esq County Attorney, one a Whig, and the other a Democrat. . . . It was contended that to admit Mr. Allen would disgrace the Bar, no doubt because he was a coloured man, though that was not in terms avowed. His qualifications were not denied.” According to Fessenden, “Judge Goodenow who held the Court, though not an antislavery man, acted nobly, and said he could not, sitting on that Bench of Justice, have respect to the colour of the skin.”

Ultimately Allen satisfied the examiners’ requirements, was admitted on July 3, 1844, and obtained his license. At age 28, Macon Bolling Allen became the first African American lawyer in the United States. The Brunswicker and Portland American both trumpeted: “We have never before heard of a colored lawyer in this country.” The reaction in Maine’s Belfast Republican newspaper was openly racist: “Macon B. Allen, a colored gentleman, has been admitted to practice at the bar in Portland. ‘Vell vot of it?’ Is the practice of law so much more respectable than hoeing potatoes, that a lawyer can be disgraced by contact with a black man, and not the farmer?”

Allen faced tough economic challenges. Fessenden wrote Sewall: “I regret that Mr. Allen has to struggle with poverty, as I have been compelled to advance him the $20 duty or tax which our statute imposes, (on) admission to practice at the Bar, and some small sums beside to enable him to live. . . . I shall also be compelled to stand (security) for his bond while here.” And finding clients wouldn’t be easy. According to Fessenden, “I incline to think Portland is not exactly the place for our friend. Our coloured people here are few and poor; and Portland, altogether, is an inveterate proslavery place.”

Within months, Allen was back in Boston and admitted to practice there in May 1845. The Boston Post said inscrutably, “What the profession generally in this city think of the admission of Mr. Allen, as a ‘learned brother,’ we have not been able to gather.” But Allen reached out. He wrote New York City’s John Jay Jr., the grandson of the country’s first chief justice, about the difficulty of finding clients in Boston and his hope that New York City’s larger black population might furnish more business. In 1846, he wrote famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison about an incident at an Anti-Slavery Convention in Faneuil Hall, and gave an Adelphic Union speech on “Progress of things.” In 1847, he wrote Harvard Law professor Simon Greenleaf (previously a prominent Portland lawyer) about filling the office of attorney general in Liberia: “I think I know, or know of, every colored person in our country, whom you would be likely to consider as fitted for the station.” In 1847, he was appointed justice of the peace for Middlesex County, the first African American to hold judicial office in the United States. Allen practiced in the Boston area more than two decades.

After the Civil War, Allen moved to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1868, and became a partner in Whipper, Eliot, and Allen, the country’s first known African American law firm. In 1873, he became judge of Charleston’s “Inferior Court,” a criminal court. In 1876, he was elected judge of probate and served until 1878. Between the two judgeships, the Charleston News & Courier reported, Allen represented defendants, challenging their death sentences. As Reconstruction ceased, Allen left South Carolina and practiced in Washington, D.C. He told a journalist for The Evening Critic in 1883 that he still had “many very dear friends” in Portland and Boston. Afflicted by dementia at the end, he died in Washington in 1894, age 78, and is buried in Charleston.

Maine did not admit another Black lawyer to practice until 1879 – John H. Hill – and he left the state two years later to return to his native West Virginia to become that state’s first African American lawyer.

Not until the 20th century did an African American lawyer, Milton Roscoe Geary, put down roots in Maine – in 1913 as the third African American admitted to the Maine bar and the first Black student to graduate from the University of Maine’s law school. Geary practiced successfully in Bangor, became an ordained Baptist minister and was a prominent community member locally and nationally. Ebony magazine featured him in a five-page photo essay in 1953. Geary died in 1964, age 79.

Throughout his life Allen struggled to be distinguished from later-admitted Boston lawyer Robert Morris. In 1848, The Liberator incorrectly reported that Morris was the first African American lawyer to conduct a jury trial, then retracted the story, recognizing Allen had preceded Morris as both a lawyer and jury advocate. Upon Morris’ death, Allen reiterated to a D.C. journalist in 1883 that he was the first African American lawyer. Ironically, even today, websites show Morris’ image as that of Allen. I know of no authenticated image of Allen. In 1873, the Portland Daily Press reported that the Portland Municipal Court had “received a fine oil painting” of Judge Allen and hung it in the courtroom, but I have been unable to find it; it may not have survived the 1908 City-County Building fire.

Allen’s legacy? In 1959, African American historian Charles Sumner Brown wrote: “Today the Negro lawyers in New England are approximately 40, while nationally some 1,450 are recorded by the 1950 Census. These lawyers therefore, are the fruits of the tree that Gen. Fessenden planted in 1844 when he introduced Macon B. Allen to the court in Maine.” That tree and its fruits grew exponentially in the years that followed. In 2005, the entry for Allen in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience said: “Allen left a legacy as a pioneer in African American legal history that transcended time, space, and the tenor of the nation and placed him in the forefront of the black struggle. His accomplishments in New England and South Carolina paved the way for the generations of black lawyers and activists who followed.”

Macon Bolling Allen’s determined perseverance in the face of prejudice and adversity remains a beacon of inspiration for the legal profession.

Adapted from D. Brock Hornby’s “History Lessons” forthcoming in the Green Bag Spring 2020 edition.

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