In 1925 when Black Americans were still being marginalized by being denied access to various facilities and opportunities, Ruth Whitehead Whaley became one of the first Black women admitted to practice law in New York. She was also the first Black woman to enroll at Fordham Law School, where she graduated in 1924 at the top of her class.
Nine years after her graduation, she became the first Black woman to practice law in her home state of North Carolina. But she struggled to practice law there as the license granted to her was mostly ceremonial because of racism. She overcame those difficulties and would pave a way for Black women in the legal profession and even in politics.
Born in 1901, Whaley went to school in Goldsboro where her parents were teachers. After completing high school, she went to Livingstone College in Salisbury and later got married to Herman Whaley in 1920. It was her husband Herman Whaley who urged her to enroll in law school at Fordham University in New York, where she became the first African-American woman to study law and earn a law degree there.
In 1925 when she passed her bar exam and became one of the first African-American women to practice law in New York, she went back to Goldsboro in 1933, where she was granted a license to practice law in North Carolina. But that license was almost decorative because Whaley was Black, according to Ansley Wegner, of North Carolina’s highway historical marker program.
“She couldn’t easily practice law here so she had to move to New York. But she still came back and went through the process and got her license here. I think that’s a real interesting side of the story,” Wegner said.
Becoming the first Black woman to engage in active law practice in New York State, Whaley spent her early career in private practice in New York. She became an expert in civil service law and won several landmark cases. She represented black local government employees including her husband in discharge proceedings. Being one of only a few black women in law in the U.S. at the time, Whaley was worried and highlighted her concerns in a 1949 essay titled “Women Lawyers Must Balk Both Color and Sex Bias.” At the time she penned that article, there were fewer than 150, and fewer than 100 black women who were practicing law.
A bio of Whaley by Fordham states: “The high expectations placed on black female lawyers by colleagues and the community, she wrote, were the ‘penalty usually exacted from a minority or from pioneers.’ And all female lawyers had to outperform their male counterparts, she quipped, lest one of those men ‘forgets to be gallant in his thinking and the overlooked errors of a male colleague become the colossal blunders of a woman.’”
All in all, Whaley went on with her private practice in New York until 1944 when she turned to politics. In 1945, she ran for a New York City Council seat as one of the first Black women ever nominated by a major political party in the country, according to wfae.org. Whaley was the first president of the New York City National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women, and was also president of the National Council for Negro Women. She further served as a member of the Fordham University Council, a “body of prominent individuals who served as ambassadors for the University.”
From 1951 to 1973, Whaley also served as secretary of the New York City Board of Estimate, helping with municipal policies such as land use, water rates, city budget, contracts, franchises, and so on.
Whaley passed away in 1977 and was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Yonkers, New York but her legacy as a trailblazer in her profession continues to be recognised. Scores of awards, societies and scholarships are named in her honor. The Association of Black Women Attorneys’ Ruth Whitehead Whaley Scholarship is awarded annually to law students “on the basis of service to their community and financial need.”
At Fordham where she made history, students in the top 25 percent of each class at the School of Law are honored as Ruth Whitehead Whaley Scholars. What’s more, the Black Law Students Association bestows an annual Ruth Whitehead Whaley Trailblazing Alumnus Award, given to alumni who “embody Whitehead Whaley’s bold spirit and commitment to excellence.”
And just last week, the North Carolina history-maker had a highway historical marker dedicated in her honor. The marker for Whaley stands near the corner of Ash and Jones streets in Goldsboro, around where she grew up. The marker reads: “Ruth Whaley. Pioneer female African-American lawyer, first to be licensed in NC.” State officials erected the marker on May 25, with hopes that it will educate community members about Whaley’s inspirational story.
Whaley did go through several challenges to practice law, nevertheless, she said of her career choice: “My admiration is undimmed.”