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Leaving a Legacy: How Black Women Used Law and Activism to Shape Family Inheritance Rights

Posted by Amber Boyd | Feb 02, 2024 | 0 Comments

Throughout history, black women have faced immense discrimination when it came to inheriting family wealth and property. Restrictive laws often prevented widows and daughters from receiving assets from a deceased male relative's estate. This impacted generations of black families and made it difficult to build and pass on wealth. However, black women were at the forefront of challenging these unjust inheritance laws.

One prominent example is the story of Ida B. Wells. When her husband was killed by a white mob in 1892, discriminatory laws prevented Wells from inheriting her husband's estate. She boldly hired a lawyer and fought an extended legal battle to claim her inheritance rights as a widow. Though she ultimately lost, her highly publicized case was an early challenge to unjust inheritance laws.

Annie Malone's story illustrates how some black women used their wealth and influence to help others fight discrimination. Malone became one of the first black millionaire female entrepreneurs by founding a highly successful black hair care company in the early 1900s. She used her considerable wealth to hire lawyers to take on inheritance discrimination cases for black widows who couldn't afford legal representation.

The civil rights movement also took up the charge to dismantle discriminatory probate and inheritance statutes. Prominent civil rights lawyers like Pauli Murray authored the state's first antidiscrimination laws protecting inheritance rights. The 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage also influenced inheritance rights, setting precedent that laws could not treat black widows differently based solely on race. This paved the way for legal challenges to state probate laws that disadvantaged black spouses.

Black women legislators and officials like Constance Baker Motley, who became the first black woman federal judge, helped draft more equitable estate laws. Motley's legal scholarship was instrumental in dismantling race-based inheritance barriers, including through New York's 1965 antidiscrimination inheritance law, one of the earliest prohibiting racial discrimination in probate processes.

Thanks to the efforts of these courageous black women, inheritance laws gradually became fairer over the 20th century. Today, black widows and heirs can largely expect to receive fair, nondiscriminatory treatment during probate procedures. By bravely bringing cases to court, introducing legislation, and leveraging political and economic power, black women drove progress on inheritance justice from multiple angles. Their persistence fundamentally shaped modern inheritance rights law for all Americans.

About the Author

Amber Boyd

Amber K. Boyd is a versatile professional with strong experience in managing complex litigation matters. She founded Amber K. Boyd Attorney at Law in 2013, where she is the sole practitioner. Ms. Boyd specializes in employment law with a focus on discrimination cases. She also has deep expertise ...


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