Righting a Historic Wrong
How J.H. Williams was posthumously admitted to the State Bar of Texas.
Written by John G. Browning
For many newly licensed Texas lawyers, seeing their names among those admitted to the bar is an early November rite of passage. But for one name appearing on 2020’s list, it marked the righting of a racial injustice dating back to 1882 and the culmination of an effort by Dallas lawyers and judges to correct that wrong.
It all began in 1882. Dallas’ first—and only—African American lawyer, Samuel Scott, had left the city the year before after a stay of only six months, departing after what the Dallas Herald euphemistically described as “a slight prejudice against him on account of his race.”1 In December 1882, a 28-year-old African American merchant from Mineola named J.H. Williams arrived in Dallas with the hope of being admitted to practice law. Like most aspiring attorneys of the time, Williams lacked a formal legal education but had “read the law” under the tutelage of an older lawyer, to the point where the Dallas Daily Herald described him as “a colored disciple of Blackstone.”2
Texas’ standards for admission to the bar at the time have been described as “extraordinarily easy”; even the notorious outlaw John Wesley Hardin was admitted to Texas’ legal profession—after a 15-year jail term for murder.3 There was no bar exam. In 1882, an applicant simply had to prove he was at least 21 years of age, a citizen who had resided in Texas for a minimum of one year, and that he was “of good moral character and deportment.”4 An applicant would simply present himself to the presiding judge of the district, and the judge would appoint a committee of lawyers to orally examine the candidate on his legal knowledge and then report back with a recommendation on the young man’s fitness to practice law. The bar was set so low that, up until 1890, only two candidates were ever denied admission to the Dallas bar—J.H. Williams would be one of them.5
Williams made his application to the presiding judge of the then-11th Judicial District Court (the next year, it would be reorganized as the 14th District Court), George Aldredge. Aldredge was a former member of the Confederate States Army whose greatest claims to fame were a eulogy he delivered for Robert E. Lee and having a son who would later become mayor of Dallas. Aldredge appointed a four-man committee to examine Williams. But that committee unexpectedly deadlocked, 2–2. The two voting in favor of Williams’ admission were two of Dallas’ most respected attorneys: Yale- and Harvard-educated W.W. Leake, then president of the Dallas Bar Association, and prominent lawyer Jeff Word.6 With the two other lawyers voting no, Judge Aldredge handpicked a second committee of three. That second committee wasted no time in doing what was expected; the day after being appointed, it reported “unfavorably” about J.H. Williams. Although the Dallas Daily Herald reported that Williams intended to continue his studies until he could pass examination, there is no record of his admission in Texas or elsewhere.7 Dallas would not see a Black lawyer until the 1885 arrival of Joseph E. Wiley.
The racial prejudice Williams encountered was hardly unusual. Black lawyers were a rarity, both in Texas and nationally. By 1890, there were only a dozen statewide, and even as late as 1930, there were still only 20 African American lawyers in Texas.8 The arrival of an African American lawyer or aspiring lawyer was newsworthy at best, but sometimes sparked racial violence. Those few African Americans who did seek entry into the legal profession encountered barriers much like Williams did. Macon Bolling Allen, believed to be the first African American lawyer in the United States when he was admitted to practice in Maine in 1844, was initially rejected because he was not a “citizen.” John N. Johnson, the first African American admitted to practice before the Texas Supreme Court in 1883, was twice rejected by local bar committees in Brazos County in 1881 and 1882.
The J.H. Williams story might have ended after the rejection in Dallas. But throughout my years of researching, writing, and speaking about Texas’ earliest African American lawyers, the adversities they faced, and the important legacy they left, I couldn’t let his story go. In February 2016, I published an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News discussing J.H. Williams’ story, calling for the Dallas Bar Association—an organization that had remained segregated until 1963—to pass a resolution honoring Williams. I noted that “[f]or a profession that still struggles with diversity, even such belated recognition would both acknowledge the many contributions made by lawyers of color and help heal the racial divides that still plague us today.”9 Unfortunately, no progress was made.
As I continued to research and write about pioneering lawyers of color, I learned that in recent years, a number of state supreme courts have acknowledged the racial injustice of the past involving minority applicants from the 19th century who were denied bar admission because of the color of their skin and have granted applications for posthumous admission for such individuals. These include the Washington Supreme Court’s admission of Japanese American Takuji Yamashita in 2001,10 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s admission of African American George Vachon in 2010,11 the California Supreme Court’s admission of Chinese American Hong Yen Chang in 2015 and Japanese American Sei Fujii in 2017,12 and the New York Supreme Court’s admission of African American William Herbert Johnson in 2019.13 There was also precedent of posthumous bar admission under extraordinary circumstances at the Texas Supreme Court, with its January 2020 admission of Baylor law graduate Ty Drury after he succumbed to cancer before he was able to pass the bar examination. I wrote about such posthumous bar admissions and restorative justice in a forthcoming law review article, but at the same time, I recognized that actions were needed more than words.
The opportunity came after former Chief Justice Carolyn Wright and I gave a Zoom presentation for the Dallas Bar Association in early August 2020 about Texas’ early Black lawyers. Upon hearing about J.H. Williams at a time when a national dialogue about systemic racism was taking place, DBA President Robert Tobey asked, “Can’t we do something about this?” As it turns out, we could. Chief Justice Wright and I began with an application asking the current judge of the 14th District Court, Eric Moyé, to vacate the order of his 19th century predecessor. Judge Moyé, the first African American man to serve as judge on that court, did so and, keeping with 19th century custom, appointed a committee of current and former DBA presidents Robert Tobey, Paul Stafford, and Al Ellis to reexamine the evidence regarding J.H. Williams’ qualifications. The committee did so and issued a report to Judge Moyé unanimously recommending that J.H. Williams be admitted to practice. Judge Moyé adopted this recommendation.
Armed with Judge Moyé’s order, the committee’s recommendation, and a letter of support from the Dallas Bar Association, Chief Justice Wright and I made a formal application to the Texas Supreme Court—the ultimate authority on bar admission. And in an October 19, 2020, order signed by every member of the court at that time, J.H. Williams was posthumously admitted to the State Bar of Texas. Williams’ certificate will soon reside on a wall in the Dallas Bar Association headquarters at the Belo Mansion.
Author and civil rights activist James Baldwin famously said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” For J.H. Williams and the cause of racial justice, lawyers, bar leaders, and judges came together to right a historic wrong.TBJ
JOHN G. BROWNING
is a former justice of the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas. He is the immediate past chair of the State Bar of Texas Computer & Technology Section. The author of five books and numerous articles on social media and the law, Browning is a nationally recognized thought leader in technology and the law.