It is a promise that generations of activists have been demanding America live up to – the 14th Amendment. It says no American should be denied equal protection of the laws and no State shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law.” The amendment was ratified in 1868 to establish Black rights following the Civil War, but it is only one chapter in the unremitting fight for equality.
In Maryland, it took almost two decades after the 14th Amendment’s approval for a Black lawyer to be admitted to the bar or for Blacks to even serve on juries. The state statue explicitly said only White men were allowed to practice law. It took three attempts for Blacks to gain the right to argue in Maryland courts.
“Charles Taylor, an attorney from Massachusetts, was the first Black person to apply for admission to the Maryland Bar,” says Larry Gibson, law professor at the University of Maryland. In 1877, Taylor was green-lighted to practice by federal courts in Maryland but denied by the state courts and then the Maryland Court of Appeals. Looking to a similar case in Illinois, the state’s highest court ruled that practicing law was not a right protected under the 14th Amendment. After the decision, Taylor moved out-of-state.
Seven years later, Black Baltimoreans launched another fight to practice law, according to AFRO news articles. With the Rev. Harvey Johnson of Union Baptist Church at the forefront, community leaders hired a White attorney for $145 to challenge the statue and push for Massachusetts lawyer Charles R. Wilson’s acceptance to the Maryland bar. They won. The Court of Appeals reversed its 1877 ruling in the wake of a Supreme Court decision granting Blacks the right to serve as jurors. Despite the success, Wilson did not qualify for the bar for unrelated reasons.
Baltimore activists did not give up. They called on 26-year-old Everett J. Waring, who was living in Washington D.C., to apply for Maryland’s bar. The Howard Law School graduate became the state’s first Black lawyer in 1885.
Waring’s first case challenged the “bastardy” law, which entitled White women to financial support for children born out of wedlock. The law did not apply to Black women. Waring’s client, a Black woman, eventually moved to dismiss the case, but the young attorney argued against the dismissal in front of the then-Supreme Court of Baltimore City. His argument was well-documented in the local media. In the end, the city court still dismissed the case. However, during a codification of Maryland statues two years later, the word “white” was quietly omitted from the “bastardy” law, Gibson says.
Waring continued to break color barriers by becoming the first Black attorney in the country to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. Just four years after his first case in Maryland, he defended a group of Black contract workers charged with murdering their managers over unjust working conditions. The laborers, many from Baltimore, were wooed by a phosphate company to the island of Navassa to mine guano, seabird waste used as fertilizer. The workers say they were greeted with “literal slavery. [They] were shackled and beaten and forbidden to leave the island,” according to a 1933 AFRO news story summarizing the case. The company also inflated charges for food and other necessities, leaving the workers in debt.
In 1889, 148 workers rioted, and a handful of company managers were killed. The laborers were returned to Baltimore. Several were charged with manslaughter and rioting, but three were convicted of murder. They were sentenced to death by hanging. Waring appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing the U.S. did not have jurisdiction over crimes committed offshore, but the nation’s highest court upheld the ruling because the island was discovered by a U.S. citizen 30 years prior. After receiving pressure from Waring and others, President Benjamin Harrison commuted the death sentences to life in prison on grounds the workers endured such cruel treatment. An AFRO article called it “the most celebrated case ever tried in Baltimore.” Waring continued to receive attention for his racially-charged legal cases, even drawing criticism for defending six White men accused of assaulting a Black woman.
The state’s first Black attorneys were leaders who offered the legal guidance necessary for the Black community to launch intellectual attacks on inequality. They targeted the discriminatory Jim Crow practices and laws, which began to pop up after the Civil War. In one case, Waring sued the owners of a Chesapeake Bay steamer for attempting to force a Black person to eat in a “Blacks only” section. The judge dismissed the case; however, finding the dining tables were “separate but equal.” Other lawsuits and complaints were lodged against city boats and trains.
Lawyers also organized around housing legislation. In 1911, according to Gibson, Baltimore city ordinances began popping up making it illegal for Blacks to move into white neighborhoods. “A Black attorney [named George W.F. McMechen] acquired a house on McCulloch Street, which was all-White at the time,” says Gibson, “that’s when they [the city council] made it against the law to move into a predominately White neighborhood.”
Attorney W. Ashbie Hawkins gave what the AFRO called a “masterful argument” while fighting to appeal one of the housing regulations: “This ordinance is not aimed at protecting the health, morals, or safety of the community, nor to provide for its general warfare,” the 1913 article quoted Hawkins as saying before the Maryland Court of Appeals. “It is but an effort to satisfy the unreasonable prejudices of one class of the community against another, and to protect what one class believes to be its property right.” Black attorneys challenged the housing ordinances all the way up to the Supreme Court where it was ruled unconstitutional to “use criminal laws to enforce racial segregation in housing,” according to Gibson.
Another major rallying issue for the early Black attorneys was voting rights protection. They vehemently resistedstatues and constitutional amendments that disenfranchised Blacks. The lawyers endorsed candidates for political office, especially when one of their own was elected. In 1887, T. Arrington Thompson – a lawyer – became the first Black person elected to office in Maryland. State records indicate he served as an alderman in Annapolis.
Harry Sythe Cummings, the state’s third Black attorney, was Baltimore City’s first Black councilman. He served three terms between 1890 and 1919, representing the racially-mixed 11th ward. Cummings began practicing law in 1889 – advocating for the hiring of Black teachers and the establishment of a high school program for Black students. He and his colleagues also led the fight to end racial discrimination in Baltimore teacher salaries. That battle continued until then-Baltimore Mayor Howard Jackson assured equal pay for all teachers in 1927. Warner T. McGuinn and W. Ashbie Hawkins played major roles in this win.
Hawkins, who became a lawyer in 1893, was a staunch opponent of racial segregation and served as an attorney for the Baltimore branch of the NAACP. He practiced in Baltimore for 50 years. Growing frustrated with the politicians that loyal Black voters routinely helped elect, Hawkins ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate. “The Republican Party in Maryland has demonstrated time and time again that it has no other interest in the Negro than to make use of this vote on Election Day,” he said according to a 1920 AFRO article.
He filed what is likely the nation’s first school desegregation lawsuit. Hawkins sued what is now the Maryland Institute College of Art for not admitting a Black student who received a scholarship from the City Council to attend the school. The courts ruled against him, but Hawkins’ arguments laid the groundwork for future laws pertaining to private institutions and government funds.
McGuinn, the sixth Black lawyer admitted to the Maryland Bar, was legal counsel for the AFRO. He also served several terms on the Baltimore City Council and fought civil rights cases, including those related to women’s suffrage. The Yale grad went on to become the first president of the Monumental City Bar after its incorporation in 1935. With several other passionate Black attorneys on his side, including Thurgood Marshall as his secretary, McGuinn led what would become Maryland’s oldest and largest specialty bar association.