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Four Black Women Lawyers who Paved the Way for Generations to Come

20 Feb 2023 9:55 AM | Sandra Buhain (Administrator)

In honour of Black History Month, Young Women in Law would like to highlight the accomplishments and contributions of Charlotte Ray, Violet King, Corrine Sparks, and Constance Baker Motley, four trailblazing Black women lawyers.  Each of these accomplished lawyers were responsible for many firsts in their careers, breaking barriers for women following in their footsteps.

Charlotte Ray

Charlotte Ray was the first African American woman lawyer in the U.S. and the third woman in the U.S. to earn a law degree. Ray graduated from Howard University Law School in 1872.  She began as a sole practitioner, opening her law office in Washington, D.C. to practice commercial law. Ray ran her sole practice for several years, but unfortunately had to close it down due to a lack of business likely as a result of the prejudice she faced at the time. Ray then moved to New York where she worked as a public school teacher and joined the National Association of Colored Women to advocate for the rights of women and African Americans.

Violet King

Violet King was the first Black graduate of the University of Alberta and one of only four women enrolled at its law school. King became the first Black woman to practice law in Canada.  After articling in criminal law, King accepted a position with the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. She later became the executive director of the National Council of YMCAs Organizational Development Group in New York City and was the first woman to hold the position within the YMCA.

Corrine Sparks

The Hon. Judge Corrine Sparks was the first Black woman to serve on the bench in Canada.   Sparks attended the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, where she was the only Black woman in her class of 120 students.  Sparks practiced family law in Nova Scotia for several years and went on to have a long and successful career presiding on the Family Court of Nova Scotia.  She recently retired from the bench at the end of 2021 and now serves as a commissioner adjudicating land ownership disputes in historic African Nova Scotian communities.

Constance Baker Motley

Constance Baker Motley was the first African American woman appointed to the federal judiciary.  Baker Motley received her law degree from Columbia University in 1946.  After graduating, she joined the staff of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., an organization devoted to racial justice and led by Thurgood Marshall.  Baker Motley had a storied legal career, representing Martin Luther King Jr. and arguing ten cases at the Supreme Court while with NAACP Legal Defense.  In 1966, she was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Katrina Kairys practices charity and not-for-profit law at Patel Kairys Law.  She completed her undergraduate degree at McGill University and obtained her J.D. from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.  Katrina practiced charity and not-for-profit law at a national law firm for several years prior to co-founding Patel Kairys Law.

Katrina is a director of ACCESS Community Capital Fund, a charity based in Toronto, and she volunteers as a member-at-large of the Ontario Bar Association Charities and Not-for-Profit Law Section Executive. Katrina has authored articles in the Estates, Trusts & Pensions Journal, Canadian Tax Foundation Conference Report and Ontario Bar Association Section Insider.

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