Legal History

Posthumous bar admission granted in case of Black man who sought law license in 1882

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A Black man who sought to become a lawyer in Dallas in 1882 after reading the law has been granted bar admission posthumously, thanks to the work of two appeals judges who did the historical research.

The Texas Supreme Court granted posthumous bar admission to J.H. Williams in an Oct. 19 order, report the Texas Lawyer and the Texas Bar Blog.

When Williams tried to become a lawyer, bar admission requirements in Texas were less rigid, according to the Texas Lawyer. The applicant had to be at least 21 years old, to live in Texas, to be of good moral character, and to pass a review by a committee of local lawyers.

The committee that first evaluated Williams split 2-2 on whether he was qualified to become a lawyer. A new three-member committee recommended against admission.

The two judges who did the historical sleuthing in Williams’ case were Carolyn Wright, who didn’t seek reelection to the 5th Court of Appeals last November, and John Browning, who was appointed to the 5th Court of Appeals in August.

They petitioned the current judge on the court that denied bar admission to Williams in the 1880s. The presiding judge appointed a new commission that reviewed Williams’ qualifications and recommended admission.

Browning and Wright learned about Williams when they were conducting research for a 2014 article on the first African American attorney in Texas, according to the Texas Lawyer.

“This righting of a historic wrong is the most recent of several such examples in recent years in which a state’s highest court has granted posthumous bar admission,” Browning told the ABA Journal in a text message.

Other states are California, Washington, New York and Pennsylvania.

Browning told the ABA Journal in a phone interview that posthumous recognition is important “because it’s an acknowledgement of the injustices that people of color have faced in the past, and hopefully that will foster a greater understanding and help breach the racial divide that we still witness today.”

Many aspiring minority lawyers from over a century ago may have simply abandoned their quest because of the barriers to bar admission, Browning says. And that resulted in low numbers of minorities in the legal profession that remain a problem to this day, he says.

Browning is working on another project to recognize a Native American man who was denied bar membership in New York in the 19th century because he wasn’t considered a citizen.

Finding evidence of minority lawyers who were unfairly denied bar membership can be difficult, Browning says. In the case of Williams, local newspapers had covered his quest because it was considered such a novelty.

Newspaper articles covering Black lawyers who did gain admission in the same time period often expressed astonishment, racist sentiments and ridicule, Browning says. There is also evidence of racial violence against Black lawyers.

In one instance, a Black lawyer in Texas was shot while trying to vote, resulting in the amputation of his arm, Browning says.

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