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Constance Baker Motley

February 5, 2021 | Authored by

The First Black Woman to Become a Federal Judge

Constance Baker Motley was born on September 14, 1921 in New Haven, Connecticut—the ninth of 12 children—to immigrant parents from the Caribbean island Nevis. Her mother was one of the founding members of the New Haven NAACP, and introduced her children to African American History and the writings of scholars like W.E.B. Dubois from a young age.  

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Motley’s desire to practice law came early through her activism as the president of the New Haven Negro Youth Council and secretary of the New Haven Adult Community Council, all before she graduated from Hillhouse High School with honors in 1939. Without the financial means to proceed immediately to college, Motley worked with the National Youth Administration and continued her involvement with the community. Through this work, she met businessman and philanthropist Clarence W. Blakeslee, who saw her great potential and offered to pay for her education.  

Constance Baker Motley and future Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall
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Motley initially attended Fisk University—an historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee—but then transferred north to newly integrated NYU, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in 1943 before pursuing her Bachelor of Laws in 1946 from Columbia Law School. It was during her second year at Columbia Law School that she was hired by future Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall as a law clerk, assigned to work on court-martial cases filed after World War II.  

Upon her graduation from Columbia Law School, Motley was hired as the first female civil rights lawyer to serve the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. It was there that she acted as a trial attorney for cases involving Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Riders, visited firebombed churches, and even spent a night with civil rights activist Medgar Evers under armed guard. In 1950, it was Motley who wrote the original complaint in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education. Motley was also the first Black woman to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court during Meredith vs. Fair, when she won James Meredith’s effort to become the first Black student to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962.  

Constance Baker Motley and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
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On January 26, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Motley to a seat on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, and her appointment was confirmed on August 30, 1966, becoming the first Black female federal judge. She served as Chief Judge from 1982 to 1986 and assumed senior status on September 30, 1986. Her service to the court ended on September 28, 2005, with her death in New York City. 

Black Trailblazers in Blue is created in partnership between the National Law Enforcement Museum and the National Black Police Association to celebrate the triumphs of African American leaders in Law Enforcement. 

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Category: Black History

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