Ruth Whitehead Whaley, the first Black woman to earn her certification as an attorney, was honored this week with a special historical marker in her hometown of Goldsboro, North Carolina.
The beautiful plaque, which now stands on the corner of Ash and John streets near downtown Goldsboro, reads:
“Ruth Whaley. Pioneer female African-American lawyer, first to be licensed in NC.” State officials erected the statue on May 25, hoping to educate community members about Whaley’s inspirational story, according to WRAL.com
At 21, the Fordham University graduate left North Carolina to study law in New York City, after Jim Crow laws prohibited her from practicing in her hometown.
With hard work and determination, Whaley graduated top of her class from Fordham’s law school. The icon opened up her own practice, which she maintained until 1944, Fordham’s website noted. Additionally, Whaley served as the secretary of the New York City Board of estimates from 1951 to 1973.
The historical icon’s talent led her to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals during her career where she became an expert in civil service law. Whaley represented Black local government employees in discharge proceedings.
In her 1949 essay “Women Lawyers Must Balk Both Color and Sex Bias,” Whaley wrote about the lack of Black female lawyers present across the United States. According to the legal expert, in 1920, there were only four women of color practicing law. By 1949, there were fewer than 150 who had completed their certification.
Black female lawyers faced a number of challenges in the 1900s. Whaley often spoke about the pressure that was placed on women of color in the field by community members and colleagues, but despite the hardship and inequality, Whaley said that her admiration for the law would never go “undimmed.”
The star spoke her dreams and aspirations into existence because she later became the first president of the New York City National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women, and served as president of the National Council for Negro Women.
On Sunday, while speaking at the marker ceremony, Archbishop Anthony Slater praised the notable figure for how she rose against the odds to pursue her incredible law career.
“There’s a woman who came against all odds, and was successful, is successful,” Slater said. “It is a platform for those who are coming behind that can do the same thing, if not greater.”