By Gausnell, O’Keefe & Thomas, LLC Co-Founder and Principal Attorney, Bill Thomas
On February 23, 2021, the Lawyers Association, in conjunction with the Mound City Bar Association, presented its annual Judge McMillian Black History Month Event; although, because of the pandemic, it was virtual this year. The speakers socially distanced, wore masks and shared their experiences with the local practice of law. As a past president of the Lawyers Association (2008-2009), I had the honor of moderating the event and providing a few opening remarks in introduction of a number of impactful speakers. GOT was also a sponsor of the event.
This event pays homage to the founding principles of the Lawyers Association, organized in 1934, and that of the Mound City Bar, established 12 years before, to improve the administration of justice; uphold the honor of the legal profession; promote professional development; and provide service to the community. But, perhaps most significantly, both organizations recognized the singular importance of diversity and inclusion in the practice of law. I always admired the vision of those early founders of the Lawyers Association, who saw a need to allow admission to any lawyer, no matter their race, gender, religion or area of practice.
The event honors the fond memory and incredible legacy of one of the Lawyers Association’s greatest members, Judge McMillian (Award of Honor recipient 1970), who passed in 2006. At his memorial service in the Court of Appeals rotunda, where Judge McMillion was the first African American to serve on the 8th Circuit, Professor Karen Toakrz from Washington University School of Law noted of the jurist:
“Judge McMillian’s human decency and commitment to equal justice will endure because he infused the law in Missouri, in this circuit, and in this country with his conscience and his courage. Surely, Judge McMillian’s human decency and commitment to equal justice will endure because he influenced so many institutions, locally and nationally, through his work for the community, for children, for the poor, and for those who needed protection.”
The program was introduced by the current presidents of each of the sponsoring organizations, Ms. Teri Appelbaum for the Lawyers Association, and Mr. Steve Harmon for Mound City Bar. The Honorable Nicole Colbert-Botchway of the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court in the City, and retired Family Court Commissioner, Judge Anne-Marie Clarke, also of the 22nd Circuit, were the featured speakers.
Judge Colbert-Botchway opened recognizing that the tradition of Black History Month was first created by Mr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926, who was then an Associate Professor of History at SIU-Edwardsville. The Lawyers Association itself created this event for the first time in 1995, to celebrate the achievements of African Americans in the legal profession through the efforts of the past president (2002-2003) and Award of Honor recipient (2014) Mr. Lenny Cervantes, who passed away in 2018. Judge Colbert-Botchway paid tribute to the efforts of Lenny, and the inspiration of Judge McMillian, along with a number of other local legal legends, heroic Black attorneys from St. Louis, including the late Sydney Redmond (who won the education discrimination case of Mo. Ex Rel. Gaines v. Canada), George Vaughn and Margaret Bush Wilson (Award of Honor recipient 2006) (who won the housing discrimination case of Shelly v. Kramer), and her friend and mentor Frankie Muse Freeman (Award of Honor recipient 2006) (who won the discrimination in public accommodations case of Davis et al. v. The St. Louis Housing Authority).
Judge Colbert-Botchway noted: “as our Chief Justice George Draper reminded us in the State of the Judiciary address earlier this Black History Month, although we have progressed in race relations – the events from Ferguson to present have displayed the fact we have much more work to do. I believe breaking racial barriers begins with building relationships and the relationship between the Lawyers Association and Mound City Bar is a priceless bridge. Together we can overcome.” Because the event was held virtually, and we were missing the opportunity to mingle in person, she urged us all to be “more intentional” about our support of diversity and connections throughout the year. She encouraged everyone to “reach out to someone that does not look like you, include them in your business and social network and unite around common values and goals to truly support Lennie’s legacy of diversity and inclusion.”
She introduced the event’s second featured speaker, and one of her judicial mentors, the Hon. Anne-Marie Clarke (ret.), the longest-serving judicial officer in the 22nd Judicial Circuit. Judge Clarke retired from the bench in 2019 after 33 years of service in the Juvenile Court as a hearing officer since 1986 and commissioner since 1998. Herself a past president of the Mound City Bar (1981-1983), Judge Clarke currently serves as the Centennial Committee Chair.
Her remarks were devoted to a reflection on the path Black lawyers have walked here in St. Louis, including the formation of and membership in many local bar organizations. Mound City Bar, formed in 1922, is the oldest Black bar organization West of the Mississippi. By 1924, there were 28 Black lawyers in St. Louis. The National Bar Association, which came to be because Black people were denied membership in the American Bar Association, was not founded until 1925.
Entry into local law schools was also denied to Black people for many years, she noted. The University of Missouri system, instead of enrolling Black students, would pay for them to attend schools in other states where segregation did not preclude their attendance. She recalled the story of Mr. Lloyd Gaines, a graduate from Vashon High School, who would eventually go on to attend Lincoln University, where he was an honor student, graduating in August 1935. When he was denied admission to the University of Missouri Law School, he filed suit, and his case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided, in 1938, that he had been denied equal protection under the 14th Amendment.
Her story highlighted the resistance to change even in light of that decision, which did not strike Plessy v. Ferguson, but rather instructed that a “comparable and substantially equal school” must exist if his admission was to be denied. So, the Missouri legislature ordered Lincoln University, a historically Black University which operated in St. Louis from 1939 until it closed in 1955, to create a law school. The law school was fully accredited by the American Bar Association by 1939 and Missouri’s board of bar examiners by 1940. Judge Clarke noted the graduates of Lincoln Law, 79 in total over its years in existence, “were taught in the tradition of Charles Hamilton Houston, (Howard University Law School Dean, who took Mr. Gaines’ case to the Supreme Court), that a lawyer was either a ‘social engineer or a parasite on society.’”
Among its graduates were the first Black woman to pass the Missouri Bar, Dorothy Freeman, and Margaret Bush Wilson, (mentioned above), the second Black woman to be licensed to practice law in Missouri. Her father, Mr. Thomas P. Clarke, managing attorney of Legal Aid Society and the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, and his first law partner, also an alum, Mr. Melton Lewis, would sign their pleadings “Lewis and Clarke.” They were responsible for mentoring countless lawyers at Legal Services. Other graduates include Mr. James Bell, a well-known criminal and civil rights attorney, and Mr. Curtis C. Crawford, a member of the United States Probation and Parole Commission, and Lawyers Association Gridiron Hall of Fame Inductee (2010).
Judge McMillian taught us that “It’s more important to be human than to be important.” His importance in the local legal community is immeasurable, and his humanity endures through the memories we share of him every year with this event. It was my honor to have been even a small part of this event, which highlighted the ever-important need to foster connection and promote diversity in our practice and profession.