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February 2017 - President's Message
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President's Message - FEBRUARY

Stacy Horth-Neubert
WLALA President 2016-2017

 Celebrating Black History Month Right Where You Belong

As our nation is facing some of the most serious challenges to our cohesive democracy in modern history, it seems particularly appropriate to take a moment during Black History Month to celebrate some of those who have overcome adversity to force America to live up to the promise of that democracy:  African American women lawyers.  In particular, I would like to take this opportunity to spotlight a handful of remarkable women who have forged a path in a field dominated by men and lacking in female or black role models, and along the way, have had a major influence on the legal profession and the nation at large. 

Before telling those stories, however, it bears noting how steeply the odds are stacked against black women lawyers even today.  According to NALP’s recently published 2016 survey, black lawyers comprise only 4.11% of all lawyers in firms, and black women comprise only 2.32% of lawyers – and those numbers are down from 2009.[1]  Those dim statistics seem positively rosy in comparison with the number of black partners, which is just 1.81% -- and black women partners are just 0.64% of partners nationwide.[2]  In Los Angeles, black women make up only 0.59% of partners.[3]  Against this backdrop, the accomplishments of the women below are all the more striking.

The first African American female lawyer was Charlotte E. Ray.  Ray applied to Howard University School of Law under the name C.E. Ray to avoid being rejected as a female applicant.  She graduated in 1872, and was admitted to the D.C. bar that same year.  Ray was only the third American woman of any race to complete law school.  She later became the first woman to be granted permission to argue cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Following her graduation, Ray started her own law office, specializing in commercial law, where she practiced for a few years before the pressures of racism and sexism led her to leave the law.  But, her short career served as an inspiration for women lawyers who followed.[4] 

California’s first female black lawyer was Annie Coker.  She received her law degree from Boalt in 1929 and was admitted to the California Bar that same year.  While little is known about Ms. Coker, it is known that she worked for many years in the State Office of Legislative Counsel.[5]

As a divorced, single mother of six-year-old triplets, Mahala Ashley Dickerson enrolled in Howard University School of Law.  She graduated in 1945 as one of only four women to graduate in her class.  She was dedicated to human rights causes and often took on cases involving the rights of women and people of color; she also made time to mentor young minority lawyers throughout her long career.  Dickerson was the first black female attorney in her home state of Alabama, the second black woman admitted to bar in Indiana, Alaska’s first black attorney, and the first black president of the National Association of Woman Lawyers.  In 1975, Dickerson won a major equal pay case concerning University of Alaska professors who received less pay because they were female.  Dickerson practiced law into her nineties.[6]

Dovey Johnson Roundtree is a 104 year-old African-American attorney and civil rights activist and attorney.  She was one of only five women enrolled at Howard University School of Law in the fall of 1947; she graduated in 1950.  Thurgood Marshall was one of her instructors.  Roundtree’s most high-profile case was Sarah Keys v. The Carolina Coach Company.  In that case, in 1955,  the Interstate Commerce Commission issued the only explicit repudiation by a court or federal administrative body of the “separate but equal” doctrine in the field of interstate bus transportation.  Later, Ms. Roundtree broke the color barrier for minority women in the Washington legal community with her admission to the all-white Women’s Bar of the District of Columbia in 1962.[7]

Right here in Los Angeles, we recently marked the passing of Vaino Spencer, the first African American woman appointed as a judge in California.  Born in L.A., Spencer earned her law degree from Southwestern University School of Law in 1952.  She was only the third black woman admitted to the California bar.  She was in private practice for nine years, focusing on civil litigation.  She was appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1961.  In 1980, Spencer became the first black woman to serve on a California appeals court when she was appointed as presiding judge of Division One of the Second Appellate District Court of Appeal.  Justice Spencer was revered by her peers, who described her as a “fierce champion” of opportunities in the workforce for women and people of color, particularly for women on the bench.[8]

More recently, our country has had the privilege of the service of the first African American woman Attorney General, Loretta Lynch.  Ms. Lynch was only the second woman ever to hold that position.  Ms. Lynch grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, a battleground of the civil rights movement, in which her parents were active.  She graduated from Harvard College, and then earned her J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1984.  Ms. Lynch worked as a litigator at Cahill, Gordon & Reindel for a number of years before becoming an Assistant U.S. District Attorney in New York’s Eastern District.  In 1994, she became chief of the Long Island Office.[9]  She was confirmed as U.S. Attorney General in 2015.

Washington D.C. will now feel the impact of another powerful African American woman, this one from our home state:  Senator Kamala Harris.  Senator Harris is only the second woman of African American descent to serve as a U.S. Senator.  Harris was born in Oakland, and received her law degree from Hastings College of Law in 1989.  She has been blazing trails throughout her career, having served as California’s first Attorney General of African American descent, and before that, serving as the first woman to hold the position of San Francisco District Attorney.  While a district attorney, Harris created a special Hate Crimes Unit; as Attorney General, she refused to defend Proposition 8 (which prohibited same sex couples from marrying in the State).  More recently, Senator Harris has been an outspoken participant in and supporter of the Women's March.[10] 

Of course, one of the most famous black women lawyers in recent history – and one of my personal heroes – is our amazing former First Lady, Michelle Obama.  Mrs. Obama graduated from Harvard Law School in 1988 and then joined Sidley & Austin in Chicago, where she specialized in intellectual property rights and marketing.  She served in several public interest roles before joining the University of Chicago, and later, the school’s Medical Center, where she worked on community affairs and volunteerism.  After becoming First Lady, Mrs. Obama focused on helping working mothers, supporting American military families, and encouraging volunteerism, health and wellness.  She also inspired millions with her speeches as First Lady, including, notably, sharing during last year's presidential elections the Obama family motto:  "When they go low, we go high."  Like many of us, I look forward to Mrs. Obama's future contributions to the law of this nation.[11]

Finally, I would like to highlight WLALA's own Life Member and former board member, Hon. Audrey B. Collins.  Associate Justice Collins currently sits on the California Court of Appeal for the Second District.  She previously served as chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Central District.  Justice Collins’ path to the bench starts where she was born, in Chester, Pennsylvania, the granddaughter of a slave.  After obtaining degrees from Howard and American University, Justice Collins graduated from UCLA School of Law in 1977, Order the Coif.  She worked briefly at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles before becoming a state prosecutor.  Justice Collins was the first African-American woman to become a Head Deputy, Assistant Bureau Director, and Assistant District Attorney.  President Clinton appointed her to the federal bench in 1994; she later made headlines when she became the first judge to declare part of the Patriot Act unconstitutional.  WLALA presented Justice Collins with the Ernestine Stahlhut Award in 1999, and she has been a WLALA enthusiast for many years.  We are a better organization for her steadfast leadership and support.[12]

These women inspire in a time when inspiration is in short supply.  I hope each of you will take a few minutes during Black History Month to learn more about them and about the many other contributions of African American women to the legal profession.


[1]       NALP 2016 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms (Jan. 2017), at 8, available at http://www.nalp.org/uploads/2016NALPReportonDiversityinUSLawFirms.pdf.  In 2009, the overall number of black lawyers was 4.66% and black women were 2.93% of all lawyers in firms.

[2]       Id. at 13.

[3]       Id.

[4]       Charlotte E. Ray, Biography, available at  http://www.biography.com/people/charlotte-e-ray-11380#synopsis.

[5]       John Watson, Legacy of American Female Attorneys, Solano County Law Library, 2016, available at http://solanolibrary.com/Documents/Hours%20and%20Locations/Law/Legacy-Of-American-Female-Attorneys.pdf.

[6]       Blackpast.org, Dickerson, Mahala Ashley, available at http://www.blackpast.org/aah/dickerson-mahala-ashley-1912-2007; David Harmon, Encyclopedia of Alabama, Mahala Ashley Dickerson, available at http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1443.

[7]       See Blackpast.org, Roundtree, Dovey Johnson, available at http://www.blackpast.org/aah/johnson-roundtree-dovey-1914;

[8]       Melissa Etehad, Obituaries:  Vaino Spencer, 1920-2016; Trailblazing judge in state, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 2, 2016; Yussuf Simmonds, Justice Vaino H. Spencer—A Lifetime of Service, Los Angeles Sentinel, April 10-16, 2008. 

[9]       Srijan Sen, Loretta Lynch Makes History as the First African-American Woman to be Attorney General, Milwaukee Courier, May 2, 2015; Loretta Lynch, Biography, available at http://www.biography.com/people/loretta-lynch; John A. Oswald, History is hard.  Herstory harder.  Loretta Lynch's rocky road to AG job; … And how Jeb Bush helped break partisan logjam that delayed confirmation, Metro International, April 23, 2015.

[10]     Nadra Kareem Nittle, Biography of California Attorney General Kamala Harris, about news, Nov. 11, 2016, available at http://racerelations.about.com/od/trailblazers/a/Kamala-Harris-Biography.htm; Equality California Endorses Kamala Harris for U.S. Senate, May 18, 2016, available at http://www.eqca.org/equality-california-endorses-kamala-harris-for-u-s-senate/; Annie Z. Yu, Kamala Harris:  The women's march is 'absolutely personal to me', Los Angeles Times, Jan. 22, 2017.

[11]     See Michelle Obama, The White House, available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/first-ladies/michelleobama; Michelle Obama, Biography, available at http://www.biography.com/people/michelle-obama-307592; First Lady Biography:  Michelle Obama, available at http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=45.

[12]     Scott Glover, L.A. judge shares her unusual story, Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2009, available at http://articles.latimes.com/2009/mar/02/local/me-collins2; California Courts, Division Four:  Associate Justice Audrey B. Collins, available at http://www.courts.ca.gov/27052.htm; The HistoryMakers, The Honorable Audrey B. Collins, available at http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/honorable-audrey-collins.

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