Law school offers glimpse into Maryland history

April 27, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

LARRY GIBSON, Baltimore attorney and University of Maryland School of Law professor, had turned into a veritable dynamo.

There he was, nudging his way through the crowd on the first floor of the law school on West Baltimore Street. He had no sooner finished chatting up one person than he was darting somewhere else. At times he was on the second floor - where the exhibit's panels, containing photographs, biographical sketches and newspaper clippings, were to be unveiled - peering down into the throng.

It was Friday, the opening night of the law school's two-day Black Alumni and Reunion Symposium. Many of Baltimore's black attorneys were there, though not all necessarily alumni of the University of Maryland law school.

Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke, now dean of Howard University's law school, attended, as did Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of Maryland's Court of Appeals. U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis of the University of Maryland law school's Class of 1978, was in the crowd.

"This is wonderful," Davis said. "After Harvard Law School, Maryland has the most African-American graduates of any law school in the nation. This school is a godsend to the African-American community."

Class of 1994 alumna Cheryl Slay, almost a babe in the woods compared to some of the older grads, didn't know of her alma mater's reputation for turning out black attorneys. (The school ranks first in the number of minorities who receive law clerk positions with judges.) But she allowed that, compared to Harvard Law School, the University of Maryland was probably much easier on the wallet.

"I happened to be working in D.C. at the time I was admitted," Slay said. "I was admitted to the University of Baltimore also. It was clear from the catalog that [the University of Maryland] had a commitment to me personally."

Carolyn Z. Powers, now staff counsel with Allstate, represented the Class of 1984.

"This is wonderful," she said of the reunion. "I was well-educated and prepared for the practice of law here."

Former Baltimore County Circuit Judge Alexander Wright Jr. graduated from the law school in 1974.

"I am really surprised at how good I feel being back here," Wright said. "It's a wonderful day. I really feel inspired."

There was more inspiration to come, courtesy of Gibson. For two years, Gibson and six research assistants pored over files from bar associations, business directories, Sun articles and 3,100 editions of the Baltimore Afro-American to put together an exhibit called Maryland's First Black Lawyers: 1877-1977. The arduous research helped Gibson clear the initial hurdle.

"My first problem was to identify who [Maryland's first black lawyers] were," Gibson said. The work led Gibson and his assistants to Everett J. Waring, the first African-American admitted to the Maryland bar, and Charles Taylor, a federal court attorney. Both men - with biographical data, photos and newspaper clippings from the era - are listed on the first panel, which covers the years 1877-1885.

The second panel focuses on the years 1886-1899. Some 22 African-Americans were admitted to the Maryland bar in this period, among them Harry Sythe Cummings and Charles W. Johnson, who were Maryland alumni. Tolerance of blacks didn't last long at the school.

Included in the panel is a New York Times story from Sept. 14, 1891.

"The Maryland Law School has determined that it will admit no more colored students," the article read. "Last year, two colored students, Cummings and Johnson, were graduated with high honors. After their graduation, two more colored students, [William] Ashbie Hawkins and [John L.] Dozier, applied for admission and were received."

The enrollment of Hawkins and Dozier ended when white students complained of having to attend school with blacks. Both men were expelled. It wasn't until 1935 that the next black student was admitted.

Cummings went on to become Baltimore's first black City Council member. He also seconded President Theodore Roosevelt's nomination at the 1904 Republican convention. Louise Dorcas, Cummings' daughter, gave Gibson her father's credential medal to that convention. Dorcas unveiled the second of the 12 panels. Other female relatives of Maryland's first black lawyers unveiled the rest. Gibson said each of the women, like Dorcas, gave him a piece of memorabilia.

"It was like they were holding them for me," Gibson said.

The Mitchell family and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall each got their own panels, and deservedly so. Gibson, with the skill of a professional museum curator, has given us a glimpse of Maryland history we may have never seen.

Get over to the University of Maryland School of Law and see it while you can.

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