Cassandra Maxwell, Esq.
First African-American woman admitted to the SC Bar
Throughout her life, Cassandra Maxwell sought to improve the lives of the less fortunate and champion causes for equality among all people. Even as a child who experienced a privileged economic and social existence, Maxwell was aware of the social and professional limitations placed on African-Americans by the majority of society. She was one of six children of successful Orangeburg, SC, merchant John Moreau Maxwell. He owned and ran a grocery store popular with all of the city’s residents. Cassandra and her brothers and sisters were being prepared for responsible social and professional positions to keep the family’s business going and to expand it. Maxwell was a serious pensive person in all of her endeavors. She attended Claflin University’s elementary and high school and Spelman College. At Howard University, she enrolled in and graduated from the School of Law. With the intention of practicing law, Maxwell took the bar exam. She became the first African-American woman to be admitted to the South Carolina Bar. Undaunted by the dearth of clients for her practice, Maxwell joined the faculty of the Law School at South Carolina State University in 1941 and for ten years molded young legal minds. She taught courses in credit transactions, contracts, pleading and moot court training. Along with her professorship, Maxwell managed and expanded the family’s business when it became apparent that her older brother would not succeed their ailing father. Finding the opportunity to start the legal practice she always wanted, she moved to Atlanta in 1951 with her husband, Dr. James Hope Birnie, a biology professor at Morehouse College and brother-in-law of Dr. Robert Shaw Wilkinson, the second president of SCSU. In Atlanta, Maxwell found a plethora of legal activity ranging from battles for residential rights to domestic issues. She also assisted Thurgood Marshall with his NAACP work in the formative years of the Civil Rights Movement. More than competent as a strategist, her input was invaluable in helping draft case law that would end the segregation of public facilities in the South. In 1962, the Birnies moved to Philadelphia, PA, where Maxwell joined the Pennsylvania Bar and began another law practice. Her advocacy for social causes was continued through her unwavering service with prominent organizations such as the Fair Housing and Jobs for Youth, the Children’s United Fund, League of Women Voters, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Urban League, and the Communities Advisory Board of Housing and Urban Development. Also she served as a Philadelphia Fellowship Commissioner, Women’s Division. Active in the Republican Party, Cassandra was appointed by President Nixon as a member of the Interim Board of Directors of the Student Loan Marketing Association. She also won the nomination in the Republican primary as a candidate for a judgeship in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Although her bid for the seat was unsuccessful, she garnered support that crossed racial and party lines. She died in Philadelphia in 1974.