African-American law graduates celebrate shared journey
Alumni gathered at the Law School on Feb. 21-22 for the first African-American Law Alumni Celebration, an event that brought together nearly 70 African-American graduates from 31 classes.
Participants had the chance to hear from alumni about their career paths and from university leaders who addressed the history of African-Americans at the College of William & Mary and at the Law School. In addition, individuals -- including graduates from the 1970s to current members of the student body -- discussed their experiences as law students.
Guest speakers during the weekend included Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia and Justice John Charles Thomas (ret.) of the Supreme Court of Virginia and a member of the William & Mary Board of Visitors. Trial attorney David P. Baugh gave the keynote address at the Oliver Hill Scholarship Banquet, hosted by the Black Law Students Association (BLSA).
Barbara L. Johnson '84, who co-chaired the event with Judge Eileen A. Olds '82, said that hosting the weekend in 2014 had special significance. The Law School recently discovered that the first African-American student to graduate from William & Mary was Edward A. Travis, who received his law degree in August 1954.
"To realize that this person, who we knew virtually nothing about at the time, had graduated in 1954 -- the same year as Brown v. Board of Education -- was astonishing," she said. The 60th anniversary of Travis's graduation seemed to Johnson a perfect occasion "to celebrate the African-American presence within the Law School."
Johnson and Olds said that during the weekend they felt the contagious energy that is generated when people who share common bonds come together to talk.
"I'm a trial lawyer, and I have a strong belief in the power of storytelling, that everyone has a story and needs to tell that story," Johnson said. "Each of us had experiences in law school that shaped us, and a lot of those are shared experiences."
Olds said that it was gratifying to see how quickly the event began to resemble a family reunion or a sorority or fraternity gathering, as old friends greeted each other warmly and introductions were made among older alumni and more recent graduates.
"We have a common experience," Olds said. "It's a special connection. This is a special school. I hope in the future that even more alumni and students will want to be part of this event."
The decision to come back to the Law School was difficult for some participants, said Olds and Johnson, as it conjured up memories of isolation and exclusion, feelings that were sometimes exacerbated, sometimes ameliorated, by classmates and faculty.
"I think there is healing that needs to take place," said Johnson, "because many alumni did feel isolated and alone during their time here, particularly those from classes in the 1970s and 1980s in which there were very few African-American students."
Law School Dean Davison M. Douglas said he was enormously pleased with the gathering.
"It is vitally important for all of us to take the time to reflect on our African-American students' experiences during law school and to celebrate the contributions of African-American students and alumni to the William & Mary community and to our profession," he said.
"It was interesting for me to explore the career outcomes of some of our older graduates," Douglas added, "and to realize that one out of every six African-American law students to graduate from William & Mary before 1983 eventually became a judge."
BLSA President Michael Roy '15 said he welcomed the opportunity to meet so many role models and potential mentors. The reality, he said, is that African-Americans remain a minority in law schools and in the field of law.
"Meeting African-American graduates and having them give current students advice was invaluable," he said. "It was great to meet judges and in-house attorneys, prosecutors and public defenders, and to see how well they have succeeded in law."
Members of the planning committee included Reginald M. Barley '77, Daniel A. Cody '98, Megan Tumi Jackson '08, Barbara L. Johnson '84 (co-chair), Courtney M. Malveaux '02, the Hon. Eileen A. Olds '82 (co-chair), Earl G. Pinto '00, C. Ezekiel Ross '03, and the Hon. Susan D. Wigenton '87.
Joining the co-chairs and planning committee members as panelists and moderators were alumni Robert W. Alexander '02, Pleasant S. Brodnax III '86, Sharon Coles-Stewart '75, Joycelyn J. Eason '08, Ozell C. Freeman, Jr. '91, the Hon. Birdie Hairston Jamison '82, Daymen W. Robinson '03, the Hon. Wilfred Taylor, Jr. '78 and the Hon. Susan D. Wigenton '87.
Additional panelists and presenters included Erica Clark '15, Dean Davison M. Douglas, Professor Emeritus John Levy, William & Mary President Taylor Reveley, Michael Roy '15, Associate Dean for Law Admission Faye F. Shealy, the Hon. Margaret P. Spencer and Claire M. Wheeler '15.