Tabitha Anne Holton, born in 1854 to a Methodist minister in Guilford County, was the first female lawyer in North Carolina — as well as the Southern United States.
She passed the bar exam in 1878 — nine years after the first female lawyer in the United States, Arabella Mansfield, was certified in 1869. But Holton’s examination wasn’t exactly typical.
Holton’s father was a noted anti-slavery advocate, and she grew up alongside her brothers Samuel, Alfred and John — all on the path to be lawyers, themselves — outside of Jamestown. She attended Greensboro Academy and graduated in 1878, at which point she accompanied her brother Samuel to take the bar exam in Raleigh in front of the North Carolina supreme court. Unfortunately, they were informed, women were not permitted to practice law in North Carolina. Holton appealed the decision, and the judges of the court requested that she come back the following day to argue her case.
Tabitha’s brother Alfred was trained under legendary lawyer Albion Winegar Tourgée — founder of the National Citizen’s Rights Association, historically black women’s college Bennett College and litigator on behalf of Homer Plessy in Plessy v. Ferguson. Tourgée was a superior court judge at the time, having moved to Greensboro for the warmer climate due to his war injury sustained at the Battle of Bull Run, and decided to represent Tabitha in her case. Tourgée argued that the exact wording of the statue was “all persons who may apply for admission to practice as attorneys,” and that surely Tabitha Ann Holton was included in “all persons.” Tourgée also argued that other states had adopted explicit wording permitting women to serve as lawyers, and that according to decisions made in the state constitutional convention of 1968 that “any person having license to practice in the highest courts of any other State, shall be admitted to practice.” Allegedly, the justices present deliberated for just 10 minutes before electing to allow Holton the right to take the bar exam. Holton passed, and was granted her license to practice law on January 8, 1878.
Tabitha Holton practiced law alongside her brother Samuel, and largely left courtroom appearances to men while she performed research work and built cases. She died in 1886 of tuberculosis, was buried in what is now High Point at a Quaker church, and is remembered through a memorial on the courthouse grounds in Dobson, North Carolina.