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Constance Baker Motley papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00110

Scope and Contents

The Constance Baker Motley Papers are primarily related to her professional and public life from 1948 to 2005. Types of material include correspondence; speeches; legal documents; photographs; press releases; reports; journal and newspaper articles; transcripts of interviews; and memorabilia.

The bulk of the papers date from 1964 to 1966 and focus on Motley's tenures as New York State Senator, President of the Borough of Manhattan, and her early years as a Judge in one of the busiest federal district courts in the country. Major topics found throughout these papers include the civil rights movement in the South; racism and discrimination in the U.S; equal opportunities for African Americans in employment, housing, and education; urban renewal in New York City, particularly Harlem; community activism and neighborhood development; New York (State and City) politics; women in the legal profession and politics; and modern judicial history. The papers are equally rich as a record of the public life and career of a pioneering African American woman in her ascent to national prominence often in the face of strong prejudice.

Correspondence comprises roughly half of the collection. Included are exchanges with constituents and other concerned citizens relating to legislation before Motley as State Senator; a myriad of political and social issues she faced as Manhattan Borough President; and cases she presided over as Justice in the Southern District Court of New York. These letters, both supportive and negative, illustrate the turbulent social and political atmosphere of New York City in the mid-1960s. Certain letters from detractors offer evidence of the sometimes quite virulent public sentiment Motley faced in challenging racism and discrimination.

Notable correspondents include: Bella Abzug, Brooke Astor, Shirley Chisholm, Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson, Florynce Kennedy, Dorothy Kenyon, Martin Luther King, Jr., John V. Lindsay, George McGovern, Floyd B. McKissick, James and Mary June Meredith, Pauli Murray, A. Philip Randolph, and Robert F. Wagner. Cross-references in the folder list and the Name Index at the end of this document refer researchers to material on individuals found in series other than Correspondence. The Constance Royster portion of the collection contains more materials from Baker Motley's early and personal life, including photos, issues of The Connecticut Negro Register (for which she was a young "local correspondent"), her twin sister's high school yearbook and reunion materials, and an album from a wedding at which she was a witness. It also includes press on her from before and after her death, memorial materials, and materials from the publication of her book Equal Justice Under Law. The Joel Motley portion of the collection contains material collected by Motley's son, Joel, after her death in 2005. It includes posthumous commemorations; honorary degrees; materials surrounding her professional activities including speeches, publications, and annotated Supreme and District Court decisions; and news clippings.

Researchers may also wish to consult two databases which were created through a project at Columbia University Law School in 1995. The first is a database of the Constance Baker Motley papers available in the Sophia Smith Collection and elsewhere. The other is a database of summaries of important NAACP cases in which Motley was counsel. In addition there are text files consisting of a list and case summaries of significant NAACP cases as well as cases Motley tried as a Federal judge. Copies of the databases and text files are all available in electronic form on the SSC computer network. A complete description of the project, the databases, and printouts of some of the text files are filed in box 15 of this collection. Consult the Reference staff for more information on how to access the electronic resources.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1934 - 2023


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

To the extent that they own copyright, Joel Motley III and Constance L. Royster have assigned the copyright of Constance Baker Motley's works to Smith College; however, copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For instances which may regard materials in the collection not created by Constance Baker Motley, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

Constance Juanita Baker was born on September 14th, 1921 in New Haven, Connecticut. She was the ninth of twelve children of Rachel Huggins and Willoughby Alva Baker, both emigrants from Nevis, British West Indies. Her childhood neighborhood, although ethnically diverse (comprised of West Indian, Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Polish families) was relatively free from racial rancor. Rachel Baker was a founder of the New Haven NAACP and Motley was exposed to African American history, especially the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, in her Sunday School. While in high school, Motley became president of the New Haven Youth Council and was secretary of the New Haven Adult Community Council. In 1939, she graduated with honors from Hillhouse High School. Though she had already formed a desire to practice law, Motley lacked the means to attend college, and instead went to work for the National Youth Administration. She also continued her involvement in community activities and it was through this work that she encountered local businessman and philanthropist Clarence Blakeslee, who, after hearing Motley speak at a New Haven community center, offered to pay for her education. She spent a year at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, then transferred to New York University in 1942, earning her A.B. in economics from its Washington Square College in 1943. In February 1944 she began her legal studies at Columbia Law School. She graduated in 1946, the same year she married Joel Wilson Motley, Jr., a real estate and insurance broker. Their son, Joel Motley III, was born in 1952.

In 1945 Constance Motley took a job as law clerk to Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDEF), and accompanied Marshall to court for most of his cases. After earning her law degree, Motley continued to work for the LDEF. In 1950 she was named assistant counsel and in 1961 she became associate counsel when Jack Greenberg succeeded Thurgood Marshall as head of the LDEF. As counsel Motley was involved in almost every important civil rights case of the era. She worked on litigation for the 1954 school desegregation case, Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas and subsequently fought for and won several other successful public school and university desegregation cases, including James Meredith's entry into the University of Mississippi in 1962. The LDEF also represented Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers in civil rights campaigns for desegregation of public transportation and accommodations throughout the South from 1961 to 1963. Motley brought many of these civil rights cases to higher courts. Between 1961 and 1964, she argued ten civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning nine. [For a complete list and summaries of Motley's NAACP cases see the Columbia University project database, described in the Scope and Contents note]. In his book, Crusaders in the Courts (1994), Jack Greenberg said of Motley's work with the NAACP: "[She] was a dogged opponent of Southern segregationists, who found her tougher than Grant at Vicksburg. She dug in to a position and wouldn't let go in the face of all kinds of threats, evasion, obfuscation, and delay."

In the late 1950s Motley had begun to be active in New York State politics. She served as a member of the New York State Advisory Council on Employment and Unemployment Insurance from 1958 to 1964, and in February 1964, she left the NAACP, having won a special election to the New York State Senate, becoming the first African American woman to serve in that body. As State Senator for the 21st Congressional District in Manhattan (roughly from 96th street on the upper west side to 161st street in Harlem), Motley launched a campaign during her first seven weeks in office to extend civil rights legislation in employment, education, and housing. She was re-elected to the Senate in November 1964 and served until February 1965, when New York City Council elected her the first woman to serve as President of the Borough of Manhattan. She was re-elected in the city-wide elections of November 1965 for a full four-year term and was the first candidate for the Manhattan Presidency to win the endorsement of the Republican, Democratic, and Liberal Parties. As Borough President, Motley drew up a seven-point program for the revitalization of Harlem and East Harlem, and won a pioneering fight for $700,000 to plan renewal projects for those and other underprivileged areas of the city. The plan included a design to decrease racial segregation in the public schools serving the housing projects.

In January 1966 Motley was nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson for a judgeship in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York--the nation's largest federal court covering Manhattan, the Bronx, and six New York counties. Over tremendous opposition from southern senators (led by Senator James Eastland of Mississippi) and other federal judges, Motley was confirmed in August 1966, becoming the first woman to occupy that post, and the first African American woman ever named to the federal bench. Judge Motley continued to be a strong supporter of civil rights for minorities and the poor, as well as for women's rights. Among her many controversial decisions was the infamous "locker room case," Ludtke v. Kuhn (1978), in which she ruled that a woman reporter be admitted to the New York Yankees' locker room. In another highly publicized case Judge Motley admonished the New York City police for not providing Vietnam war protesters with adequate protection against violence in the streets (Belknap et al v. Leary, 1970). [These and other notable cases presided over by Judge Motley are summarized in the Columbia University project which is described in the Scope and Content note below.] In 1982, Judge Motley was appointed Chief Judge of the Southern District of New York and held senior status since 1986. Constance Baker Motley died in New York City in September 2005.

For additional biographical information, see Equal Justice-Under Law: An Autobiography by Constance Baker Motley (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).


0.004 Gigabytes (114 files)

15.817 linear feet (31 containers)

Language of Materials



Judge, lawyer, civil rights advocate, and state senator. The bulk of the Motley papers document her professional life; material includes speeches, interviews, photographs, and memorabilia. The collection sheds light on the successes and failures of programs that emerged from the public policy applications of civil rights in such areas as the war on poverty and race discrimination; urban renewal; and in the New York State courts and political systems. Notable correspondents include: Bella Abzug, Brooke Astor, Shirley Chisholm, Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson, Florynce Kennedy, Dorothy Kenyon, Martin Luther King, Jr., John V. Lindsay, George McGovern, Floyd B. McKissick, James Meredith, Pauli Murray, A. Philip Randolph, and Robert F. Wagner. Individuals represented in speeches and published sources include Jack Greenburg, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thurgood Marshall.


This collection is organized into seven series:

  1. I. Biographical Material
  2. II. Correspondence
  3. III. Professional Activities
  4. IV. Speeches
  5. Ford Foundation Grant Project, Columbia University Law School
  6. Joel Motley collection of Constance Baker Motley papers
  7. Constance Royster collection of Constance Baker Motley material


This collection has been added to over time in multiple "accessions." An accession is a group of materials received from the same source at approximately the same time.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

This collection contains materials received from the donor in digital form that are not currently available online. Please consult with Special Collections staff to request access to this digital content.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Constance Baker Motley donated her papers to the Sophia Smith Collection from 1971 to 1992. Joel Motley donated additional material in 2018 and 2019. Constance Royster donated additional materials in 2019.


During accessioning duplicates, two medals, a copy of Harvard commencement instructions, and a flag for the Connecticut Freedom Trail were separated from Accession 2023-S-0028 and returned to the donor.

Additional Formats

Selections from the Constance Baker Motley Papers can be viewed in the Web exhibit Agents of Social Change: New Resources on 20th-century Women's Activism .

Related Material

Additional papers of Constance Baker Motley are housed at the Columbia University Law Library.

Processing Information

Processed by Marla Miller, Margaret Jessup, and Monique Daviau (intern), 1998. In 2019, Isabel Montesanto processed materials from the Constance Royster collection of Constance Baker Motley material. Materials came to the archive in no order, so they were foldered and rearranged.

Accession 2019-S-0047 was added to the finding aid by Althea Topek in 2020.

Accession 2023-S-0028 was accessioned by Claire Clusin, 2023.

Finding Aid to the Constance Baker Motley papers
Legacy Finding Aid (Updated)
Margaret Jessup, Madison White, and Isabel Montesanto
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Processing funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: mnsss51 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:21-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.
  • 2018-10-31: Digital object record and description added for Ford Foundation database and related files
  • 2019-04-10: Updated to include new accession
  • 2020-10-15: Added new file to include Accession 2019-S-0046
  • 2022-03-03: Integrated description of oversized materials

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063