Meet the First Black Woman to Become a Federal Judge in the United States

Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to become a federal judge in the U.S.

Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to become a federal judge in the U.S., was the 9th of 12 children from a family that immigrated from the West Indies to New Haven, Connecticut. She was an avid reader about civil rights heroes, and from her readings she became inspired to become a lawyer.
Motley began her college career at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1941. Two years later, she transferred to New York University. There she received her Bachelor’s degree in economics. In 1944, she became the first Black woman to be accepted into Columbia Law School in New York City.

While studying there, she met Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Motley started working there while she finished obtaining her degree. This opportunity brought her many high profile cases often involving school desegregation, and she played a major role in the legal preparation for the 1954 Brown vs. Board - being the first Black woman to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. She also defended protestors who were arrested during the Freedom Rides sit-ins of the early 1960s.

Motley later became the first women to be elected into the New York Senate in 1964, and also the first woman to hold the position of Manhattan Borough President. President Lyndon B. Johnson personally appointed her as the first African American woman to hold a Federal Judgeship in the United States District Court.

Over the course of her long career, she made several noteworthy and groundbreaking achievements. For example, she won nine out of ten cases argued before the Supreme Court between 1961 and 1963, and she received over 70 awards and 8 honorary degrees from various universities.

Sadly, on September 28, 2005, congestive heart failure caused her death.