By Kevin W. Mack, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 330 pages, $35

Ninety years ago, most schools, housing, and public accommodations in America were plagued by segregation, and there were very few African American lawyers to do anything about it. In the 35 years following World War I, however, there arose a cadre of black lawyers who, via the courtroom, sought to end segregation. In this new book, Professor Kevin W. Mack has written a collective biography of those extraordinary lawyers and the cultural struggles they faced in a profession that needed as much change as the rest of the country.

The book is not a conventional biography. In analyzing the lives of such luminaries as Charles Houston, Pauli Murray, Thurgood Marshall, Robert Carter, Jane Bolin, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, and others, the author focuses on the tension they each confronted between their racial identity as blacks and their professional identity as lawyers.

Mack observes that, in the 1920s and 1930s, a black lawyer had to spend much of his or her professional life among whites. He writes that success as a black lawyer meant proving you were white and gaining the trust of a class of whites who often had little sympathy for notions of equality. This meant conversing with whites in a language they understood.

As expertly chronicled by the author, however, these legal pioneers faced a difficult personal conflict: As lawyers they were expected to stand apart from their racial community, but at the same time they were expected to be authentic members of that community. The book’s strength is its articulation of this “conundrum” and the “deeply conflicted emotions and desires” that it produced.

One of the best examples of this conundrum is Mack’s description of Charles Houston’s 1933 defense of a black defendant, George Crawford, who was accused of murdering a white woman and her maid in Loudoun County, Virginia. It was Houston’s first performance in a southern courtroom in a major civil rights case.

In an argument that Mack describes as “both radical and respectable,” Houston argued a motion to quash the jury panel chosen in the Crawford case. Houston contended that his client could not obtain a fair trial in Loudoun County because the list of men from which a jury was chosen did not include blacks, even though there was proof that blacks owned land and were therefore eligible to serve. During the argument, Houston cross-examined the white judge who had picked the panel, accusing him of perpetuating a “caste system” designed to mark blacks as inferior. Mack writes that, although Houston lost the motion, his courtroom skills gained widespread respect from both blacks and whites.

At trial, Crawford was convicted. As told by the author, a key trial moment occurred when Houston tepidly argued that a confession given by Crawford to the white prosecutor was inadmissible because it was mistaken. In so arguing, however, Houston, out of an apparent accommodation to the prosecutor, declined to make the more aggressive argument that the confession had been coerced. The objection was overruled, and the confession was admitted into evidence against Crawford. Later, Houston was criticized for not attacking the prosecutor and making the coercion argument. According to Mack, Houston’s accommodation to the prosecutor on the confession was part of the conundrum he faced in the “cross-racial professional norms” of the day.

Another prominent figure profiled in the book is Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, who in 1927 was the first African-American female to be admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. By 1947, she had been appointed to President Harry Truman’s Civil Rights Commission, but early in her career she faced many paradoxes. As told by the author, in the 1920s and 1930s, jury trial work was seen as the key to obtaining a “public persona” as a lawyer, but it was a “masculine preserve.” Thus, Alexander was relegated to work in the Orphans Court, which had no jury trials.

Later, Alexander was appointed as an assistant city solicitor in Philadelphia. Soon thereafter, she became pregnant. Her husband, the lawyer Raymond Alexander, urged her to resign the position, because he thought it unbecoming for a pregnant woman to appear in court. Rebuffing the suggestion, she insisted on remaining in the post because she believed that it would “set a precedent for those who followed in her footsteps.”

As explained by Mack, Alexander and the other black women who chose law as a career in the 1920′s and 1930s marked them as dissenters from what their communities expected of them. If this was not enough, their presence in the legal profession was hampered by overwhelming race and gender perceptions. The book chronicles how Alexander’s intelligence and vision were able to both defeat those perceptions and maintain her racial authenticity.

Pauli Murray is another central figure in the book. Brilliant and outspoken, Murray was denied admission to the University of North Carolina Law School because she was black and to the Harvard Law School because she was a woman.

In 1941, Murray enrolled at the Howard University Law School. As recounted by the author, what she found there was a “place full of contradictions.” While Howard was the foremost training ground for black lawyers, it had a forbidding male-dominated culture. For example, Murray and the one other female student at the time were excluded from a smoker held at the house of one faculty member. Another professor openly questioned why women wanted to go to law school. Murray would later state that Howard equipped her for the struggle against Jim Crow, but it also exposed her to the twin evil of sex discrimination, Jane Crow.

The book is perhaps too ambitious in that it cannot possibly cover adequately the lives of so many eminent individuals in a single volume. But it serves a vital role in reminding the modern lawyer of the great legacy of the pioneering generation of black lawyers who came of age after World War I.

Jeffrey Winn is a partner at Sedgwick Law.