Bar Associations

Art Project and Late-Awarded Law License Recall Exclusion of Black Lawyers

Two news stories this week—about an art project in Iowa and a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision—call attention to a history of discrimination against black lawyers.

In Pennsylvania, a man twice denied admission to law practice in the 1800s because he was black has been awarded a law license posthumously.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court admitted George Vashon to law practice more than 160 years after his first application for a law license, the Associated Press reports. Despite his failure, Vashon moved to New York where he became the state’s first black lawyer. He was also the first black professor at Howard University.

Vashon’s great-grandson, a Philadelphia lawyer, told AP that the decision has significance beyond the family. ”It’s very important for all lawyers who are entering this profession to know that there were significant achievements made by African-Americans in the 19th century,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Des Moines, Iowa, a 37-foot-high monument on the city’s Principal Riverwalk will commemorate the black lawyers in the state who formed the National Bar Association in 1925, the Des Moines Register reports. The NBA was an alternative for black lawyers excluded from the ABA and state bar associations. The Iowa NBA chapter is spearheading the project along with the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation. The goal is to raise $1.8 million.

Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall is designing the artwork. It will depict two African “talking drums,” one on top of the other, slightly off center, the story says. They represent the goal of equal justice and the occasional imbalance. The base of the work will have a platform with an engraving of the First Amendment that will serve as a stage.

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