Maine was first in the nation to admit an African American to the bar in 1844

By Danielle M. Conway, Dean & Professor of Law

In recognition of the second annual University of Maine School of Law PreLaw Undergraduate Scholars (PLUS) Program, I am proud to recount just a few uplifting events in Maine’s history that involved diversifying the legal profession and promoting equality of rights under the law. I will then tie these events to Maine Law’s modern contributions to legal education and the legal profession that pay tribute to Maine’s stalwart rejection of the unconstitutional position that citizenship could be defined by race or color.

Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944 (By J. Clay Smith)
Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944 (By J. Clay Smith)

According to Professor J. Clay Smith, Jr., “the American black lawyer originated” in Maine. Practicing the fundamental principle of equality, Maine has the distinction of being the first state to admit the first black lawyer – Macon Bolling Allen – to the bar. This was extraordinary leadership by Maine and its citizens because the admission of Macon B. Allen to the bar of the learned profession of the law in 1844 preceded the infamous United States Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, authored by Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney in 1857. As well, the decision to admit Macon B. Allen preceded the expansion of slavery in the southern and western states leading up to the Civil War.

Macon B. Allen (By unattributed (Duhaime.org) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Macon B. Allen
Macon B. Allen’s admission to the bar was made possible by the sponsorship of General Samuel Fessenden. General Fessenden, born in Freyburg, Maine, was an attorney, a scholar, an American abolitionist, politician, and a militiaman elected to the rank major general. At the time, eligibility for admission to the bar rested on citizenship and the production of a certificate of good moral character. Because Macon B. Allen was a native of Indiana, he applied for admission by examination. With the support of Fessenden and the reliance on his own intellect and hard work, Macon B. Allen passed the examination and was admitted in 1844.

Progress, Stability, and the Struggle for Equality: A Ramble Through the Early Years of Maine Law, 1820-1920 (By Hugh G. MacMahon)
Progress, Stability, and the Struggle for Equality: A Ramble Through the Early Years of Maine Law, 1820-1920 (By Hugh G. MacMahon)

In the face of the expansion of slavery through the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Maine’s leadership in promoting equality has been consistently on the right side of history. Hugh G.E. MacMahon recounts from his research sources that “from the time of the adoption of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, ‘free men of African descent’ had ‘enjoyed the rights of the elective franchise in that state,’ and that from the time of the Maine Constitution in 1820, ‘it is believed there has been no instance in the state in which the right to vote has been denied to any person resident within the state on account of [ ] color.’” Thus, Maine’s legacy to its citizens and to the nation has been a demonstration of consistent leadership in embracing inclusiveness, diversity, enfranchisement, and an unwavering commitment to the rule of law.

Maine Law has also had an important role to play in educating the African American lawyer and in promoting inclusiveness and diversity. In 1911, the predecessor institution to the Law School admitted its first black student, Milton Roscoe Geary, who took specific courses to qualify for admission to the bar. At that time, the Law School was located in Bangor. Geary was admitted to the bar in 1913 and opened up a law office in Bangor. Likely the only black lawyer in Maine at this time, Professor J. Clay Smith explains that Geary “was well received, perhaps because of the dearth of white lawyers in Maine.” According to Professor Smith, “Geary was the first black member of the Penobscot Bar Association, and he remained the only black lawyer in the State of Maine through the 1940s.”

As illustrated, only briefly here, Maine has a rich history of defending the United States Constitution, promoting the rule of law, and producing lawyers to represent the most vulnerable among us. Maine’s bold and courageous stance on issues of citizenship, equality, and inclusiveness throughout history helped to shape the nation then and now.

2017 Maine Law PLUS
2017 Maine Law PreLaw Undergraduate Scholars (PLUS)

Maine Law is proud to follow in the footsteps of giants like General Fessenden, Macon B. Allen, and Milton Roscoe Geary with the establishment of the Maine Law PLUS Program. In line with Fessenden’s principles, the PLUS Program is designed to promote diversity in the legal profession by equipping first generation, low-income, rural, and racially and ethnically underrepresented undergraduates with the knowledge and skills necessary to pursue careers in law, policy, and business in support of Maine and its citizens.

The Maine Law PLUS Program is a tribute to a legacy of leadership by citizens in Maine who value education, the rule of law, and the training of lawyers to represent Maine’s most vulnerable citizens and residents. I believe that statesmen like Fessenden, Allen, and Geary would be proud of such a program taking root in Maine.