Because Of Them We Can
By BOTWC Staff
Ruth Whitehead Whaley was born in 1901, growing up in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and attending a school where her parents were teachers. From high school, she went on to pursue her education at Livingstone College, marrying her husband Herman Whaley in 1920. It was Herman who would convince her to pursue a law degree, Whaley becoming the first Black woman to study law at Fordham University in New York and the first Black woman to earn a law degree from the school. She passed the bar exam in 1925, becoming one of the first women to practice law in New York.
While Whaley was extremely accomplished, she was still impacted by the pervasive racism of the time, returning to her home in Goldsboro in 1933 to earn her law license. While she was granted a license to practice in the state, it was more of a ceremonial license than an official one and she was never truly acknowledged for the history-making moment, becoming the first Black woman in the state to ever earn a license to practice law.
“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,” said Ansley Wegner, a member of NC’s highway historical marker program.
As a result of the challenges she faced, Whaley returned to New York where she continued her private practice, serving as an expert in civil service law and winning several landmark cases. In 1945, Whaley ran for a New York City Council seat, becoming one of the first Black women to be nominated by a major political party in the U.S. Whaley then went on to serve as secretary of the NYC Board of Estimate where she worked on municipal policy, city budgets, contracts, franchises, land use, and water rates from 1951-1973.
Whaley passed away in 1977 and now almost five decades after her death, she is finally being acknowledged for her pioneering contributions. Recently, North Carolina dedicated a highway historical marker in her honor, acknowledging her as the first African American woman licensed to practice law in the state.
The Ruth Whitehead Whaley marker is at the corner of Ash and Jones streets in Goldsboro, North Carolina, not far from where Whaley grew up.
Thank you for your contributions and your sacrifice, Mrs. Whaley! Because of you, we can!