A wrong is righted — more than a century later

The first African American graduate of Syracuse University College of Law never became a licensed lawyer.

That’s because he was an African American.

Though William Herbert Johnson excelled at school and passed the bar exam, no lawyers would vouch for his good character, a requirement to be accepted into the New York Bar.

All of those lawyers? They were white.

It’s heartening that such a wrong was righted recently when Johnson — a 1903 graduate of the upper state New York School — was posthumously admitted to the bar.

But history …

It can make you cry ...

“The challenge facing him was the character and fitness part of the bar admission process,” Syracuse Law Dean Craig Boise said in a story published on the university's news website. “Admission to the bar required references, and white lawyers were unwilling to sign a statement confirming the good character and fitness of black graduates.”

Johnson’s family members were among those calling for this honor, noting how he so strongly deserved it. Even though he was never admitted to the bar, he did legal work — indeed for white lawyers.

“During his lifetime, lawyers in the community sought his legal opinion on cases,” Tom Johnson, his grandson, told the school. “If he was good enough to assist them with their cases, why didn’t they have the intestinal fortitude to write those character references he needed to practice?”

Black alumni of the College of Law, members of The Syracuse Black Law Alumni Collective (Syracuse BLAC), petitioned the court for the posthumous admission, the story said.

The New York Court of Appeals granted the application. “The ceremony held in Onondaga County Court (on Oct. 18) was a historical display of community unity and commitment to justice,” Felicia Collins Ocumarez L’98, G’98, co-founder of Syracuse BLAC, told the school.

“We are committed to the Syracuse community and contributing to a positive narrative of hope and new beginnings.”

The story describes what kind of a man Johnson was: “By his death in 1965, at age 90, he was a Syracuse legend who fought to right wrongs in the town he loved. Despite its history in anti-slavery activism and a popular stop along the Underground Railroad, Syracuse was not a city where blacks could easily break through into the professional ranks. They worked mostly in manual labor or service industries. Johnson was born in Syracuse in 1875, went to Boston University, served in the Spanish-American War of 1898, and returned home to Syracuse to marry Katherine Simmons. He got a job working as a clerk in a law firm. His passion for the law was ignited.”

And it would have burned brightly, no doubt, if not for a system that wouldn’t allow it.

 

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