Black History

Marjorie Lawson Made History as First Black Female Judge in D.C.

The District’s trial and appellate courts are led by two African American females: Chief Judges Anita Josey-Herring and Anna Blackburne-Rigsby. Both continue a legacy established in the city’s judicial branch first achieved by Marjorie M. Lawson.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy appointed Lawson as an associate judge on the District’s Juvenile Court bench. With that appointment, she became the first Black woman judge in the District and the first Black female appointed by a president to a judicial post.

Lawson’s appointment to the District’s bench established her reportedly as a pioneering Black female judge at the time and occurred due to her years of work as a leading attorney in the District.

Prior to her appointment, she distinguished herself as a lawyer working on urban renewal projects that served Blacks and developed specialties in real estate development, real estate tax law and federally subsidized housing.

She also served as the general counsel to the National Council of Negro Women during the 1950s.

Lawson’s work in the District caught Kennedy’s attention as he started his campaign for president in early 1960. Kennedy hired her as a director of civil rights with the responsibility of reaching out to Black leaders and communities as well as defining his views on civil rights.

Louis Martin, a co-founder of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and adviser to presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter, spoke about Lawson’s impact on the Kennedy presidential campaign in a podcast on the race housed at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

“She was one of the best-known Negroes who, for two years prior to the convention, had been publicly assisting the campaign and the candidate,” said Martin, often referred to as the ‘Godfather of Black Politics,’ adding that she’d been effective in introducing Kennedy to different groups and arranging meetings with Negro leaders from the nation’s top civic, fraternal and religious organizations.

During his tenure, Kennedy appointed Lawson to the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity as well as vice chairman of the District Crime Commission. She resigned from the Juvenile Court in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her U.S. representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. In later years, she co-founded and served as the general counsel for the Model Inner City Community Organization, a citizens group focused on urban renewal.

Lawson hailed from Pittsburgh and obtained a bachelor’s degree of sociology and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan. She moved to the District to attend the now defunct Terrell Law School, a predominantly Black institution that offered evening classes from lawyers who volunteered their time as instructors.

She earned a law degree from Terrell in 1939 but also received her juris doctorate from the Columbia University School of Law in 1950. She and her husband, Belford V. Lawson Jr., a civil rights lawyer and political operative, became well known in the District as an influential couple.

U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY), one of two Black members of the U.S. Congress in the 1940s, rented the top floor of the Lawson’s Logan Circle home for years. And Lawson wrote a column for the Black-owned Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s most influential African-American newspapers, from 1941-1955.

She died Oct. 11, 2002, at her home in Bethesda at the age of 90.

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