On this day in 1921, U.S. Cabinet member Constance Baker Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut.
Motley came from a successful family. Her mother founded the New Haven National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and her father was a chef at Yale University. Growing up, she got very good grades. At the age of 15, she decided that she wanted to pursue a career in the legal field – after reading that Abraham Lincoln believed the most difficult occupation was the legal profession.
In high school, she became involved with the civil rights campaign after she was banned from a beach because of her skin color. She went on to attend Fisk University and later transferred to New York University where she earned a degree in economics. She then attended Columbia Law School, where she earned her law degree.
Motely became a law clerk for Thurgood Marshall in 1945. Later in her career she worked for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She was involved with high-profile cases such as the 1950 Brown v. Board of Education landmark suit. Motely won nine of 10 civil rights cases that she argued before the Supreme Court throughout her career.
In 1964, she became the first black woman to be voted into the New York State Senate. Just one year later, she became president of the borough of Manhattan – making her the first female to do so. As president, she focused on revitalizing underprivileged areas of the city such as Harlem and East Harlem.
The following year, Motley became the first black woman to serve as a federal judge. In 1982, she became chief judge of the district; and senior judge in 1986.
She died on September 28, 2005 at the NYU Downtown Hospital in Manhattan from congestive heart failure.