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Allen, Macon Bolling(1816–1894) - Lawyer, judge, Faces Challenges in New England, Opens Law Practice, Chronology, Yields to Politics

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Macon Bolling Allen was the first recorded licensed African American lawyer in the United States. He was a self-taught lawyer who gained his knowledge and legal skills by serving as an apprentice and law clerk to practicing white lawyers in the pre-Civil War era. Negro professionals received their training by apprenticeship; however, they could not depend upon the practice of law for a living. They had to work at other crafts. Allen was also known as a businessman but the nature of the business is not known.

Very little is known about Allen’s early years other than the fact that he was named A. Macon Bolling when he was born a free Negro in Indiana in 1816, the same year Indiana was admitted as the nineteenth state to join the Union. He was actually a mulatto (a first generation offspring of a Negro and a white). However, mulatto was listed as a race on early census forms. Allen learned how to read and write as he grew up, and his first job in Indiana was that of a schoolteacher.

Faces Challenges in New England

In his late twenties, Allen moved to Portland, Maine, where he changed his name from A. Macon Bolling to Macon Bolling Allen. It is not known why Allen moved to there, but Maine’s stance on slavery could have been a deciding factor. Maine joined the Union in 1820 as a free state (one in which slavery is illegal). Allen was an anti-slavery advocate and Maine’s enthusiasm for national reform in the 1830s and 1840s was widely known. Anti-slavery was a popular cause in Maine. In fact, Harriet Beecher Stowe, then of Brunswick, Maine, wrote the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851, which evoked strong anti-slavery feelings and is cited as one of the causes of the Civil War.

Allen became a friend of the local anti-slavery leader, General Samuel Fessenden, who established a law firm and took on Allen as an apprentice. In 1844, Fessenden introduced Allen to the Portland District Court while it was in session and proposed that Allen be permitted to practice as a lawyer. According to Maine law at that time, anyone of good moral character could be admitted to the bar. Allen was rejected, though, because he was not a citizen. Allen then applied to be admitted by examination. He passed, was recommended, and admitted. On July 3, 1844, Allen was declared a citizen of the State of Maine with good moral character. After paying twenty dollars to the Treasury of Maine, he was granted a license to practice law as an attorney. However, Allen had very little opportunity to practice law in Maine because there were very few blacks to hire him and others were not eager to have a black represent them in a legal matter.

Opens Law Practice

In 1845, Allen moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he was required to take another examination. While in Boston, he met and married his wife Hannah. Very little is known about her except that she was born around 1838 and is listed in the census records as a mulatto and a housekeeper. The records state that her parents’ birthplace was South Carolina. Allen fathered five sons. John was born in 1852, and the 1880 United States Federal Census listed him as a single mulatto male with the occupation of schoolteacher. Edward, born in 1856, was also listed as a single mulatto male schoolteacher, as was Charles, born in 1861. Arthur was only twelve at the time of the 1880 census. Records are sketchy about Macon B. Allen Jr., the youngest child, other than the fact that he was a schoolteacher in Beaufort, South Carolina, according to the 1880 census.

After passing two bar examinations, one in the State of Maine and the other in the State of Massachusetts, Allen passed a rigid examination to become a justice of the peace for Middlesex County, Massachusetts. This examination was tough for anyone but for a black to pass was unheard of in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. A justice of the peace played an important role in the early development of the States. Officers of the justice of the peace heard civil cases that involved small sums of money, but their powers varied in different states. In some instances, the justice of the peace had powers to perform marriage services. Becoming a justice of the peace was commendable for a black professional. Allen is believed to be the first black to hold a judiciary position.

On May 5, 1845, Allen was admitted to the practice of law in the State of Massachusetts and in Suffolk County. With Robert Morris Jr., Allen opened the first black law practice in the United States. Allen gained the attention of William Lloyd Garrison and the black abolitionists in Boston. Garrison was a journalist and reformer who became famous for his denunciation of slavery. Garrison began publishing The Liberator in 1831 in Boston. In 1832, Garrison formed the society for the immediate abolition of slavery. Both were used as vehicles to arouse public reaction to slavery.

Chronology

1816 Born in Indiana

1840 Moves to Portland, Maine

1844 Changes his name to Macon Bolling Allen

1844 Passes the bar in Maine on July 3

1845 Moves to Boston, Massachusetts, and is admitted to the bar on May 3

1846 Writes letter to The Liberator

1848 Becomes justice of the peace for Middlesex County

1868 Moves to Charleston, South Carolina

1872 Becomes a partner in William J. Whipper and Robert Brown

1873 Elected judge of the Inferior Court of Charleston in February

1874 Elected to the office of judge probate for Charleston County

1894 Dies in Washington, D.C. on October 10

In May 1846, Allen attended an anti-slavery convention in Boston. Petitions were circulated to obtain signatures of convention participants of people who opposed the federal government in the Mexican War (1846–1848), which had just started. Northerners believed that the war was a plot to obtain land for the expansion of slavery. Allen did not sign the petition. He reasoned that he had just taken an oath to defend the Constitution and the laws of the land. It was announced that he had refused to sign, and no additional explanation was given to the other convention participants.

Allen later wrote a letter, dated June 1, 1846, to The Liberator , to set the record straight regarding his reasons for not signing the petition. Allen stated that he was under oath to support the laws of the country. He sympathized deeply with blacks in bondage, and he was willing to do all he could for their cause. The letter ends with his asking his friends not to be prejudiced against him, assuring them it had no justification.

Yields to Politics

In 1868, Allen moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he became active in politics as a Republican. Allen became a partner in the law firm of William J. Whipper and Robert Brown Elliot, located at 91 Broad Street, the first black law firm in the United States. In 1872, Allen ran for secretary of state on a Republican ticket that had split from the national Republican Party. During this same year, he also made an unsuccessful bid for the judgeship in the New Inferior Court.

In 1873, Allen was nominated to the office of Judge of the Inferior Court of Charleston, South Carolina, to replace George Lee who had died in office. Among the contenders for the position was his former law firm partner, William J. Whipper. The Inferior Court had exclusive jurisdiction over all criminal cases, except capital offenses, that came from courts of the trial justices.

In 1874, Allen purchased a house on Montaque Street in Charleston and Charleston became his permanent home. A few years later, he was elected to serve as a judge. In 1876, Allen was elected to the Office of Judge Probate for Charleston County. Allen served as a probate court judge until 1878.

Some time after Reconstruction, Allen moved to Washington, D.C., where he was employed as an attorney for the Land and Improvement Association. On October 10, 1894, in Washington, D.C., after fifty years of legal service, Allen died. He was seventy-eight years of age. The National Bar Association elected to honor him for fifty years of service. The records indicated that his widow and son Arthur survived him. He was memorialized at the Saint Mark’s Protestant Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and interred in the Friendly Union Cemetery.

Macon B. Allen left a legacy to be remembered. A Bar Association (New York), Civil Rights Clinic (Boston), and other organizations are named in his honor.

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