GUEST COMMENTARY: Celebrating African-Americans' contributions to Missouri's justice system

Friday, March 8, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Every February, people all over this great nation celebrate Black History Month. The achievements of the many notable individuals who advanced the cause of justice for both African-Americans and our nation as a whole, however, deserve to be honored no matter the time of year.

The positive influence of black Missouri residents reaches far back into our state's history. Walter Farmer was the first African-American to serve in a judicial capacity in Missouri when he was appointed special judge in the St. Louis municipal court at the beginning of the 20th century.

Farmer walked with the dean at his 1899 graduation from Washington University's law school in St. Louis when the other students refused to walk with him.

In 1941, Howard University law graduate David Marshall Grant was appointed assistant circuit attorney for St. Louis but was fired the following year for representing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in a protest against a lynching in Sikeston. He served as president of the St. Louis NAACP from 1945 to 1948 and, in 1957, was appointed director of legislative research for the St. Louis board of aldermen. Grant was instrumental in gaining equal pay for black teachers, establishing quality medical care for blacks and ending discrimination in hiring practices during World War II.

Dorothy L. Freeman in 1942 became the first African-American woman to graduate from Lincoln University School of Law, created in St. Louis as a separate but equal law school for black students because all other state law schools were open only to white students.

In 1947, Frankie Freeman, ­ who at 96 is still a practicing attorney, ­ graduated from law school, second in her class at Howard University. After opening her own law firm two years later in St. Louis, she participated in high-profile desegregation cases for public schools and public housing. Freeman later investigated voter discrimination following her 1964 nomination to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Theodore McMillian, ­ one of the first African-Americans admitted to Saint Louis University School of Law, ­ graduated first in his class in 1949. McMillian was the first black state court judge (serving in St. Louis city), and in October 1972, became the first black judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals. He later became the first ­ and only ­ black judge for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, confirmed unanimously in just 20 minutes. His legacy includes landmark decisions in cases about desegregation, free speech, civil rights, employment discrimination and affirmative action.

Clyde S. Cahill Jr., who graduated from Saint Louis University School of Law in 1951 and served from 1958 to 1965 as the Missouri NAACP's chief legal adviser, filed the first lawsuit in Missouri to implement the United States Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. This and subsequent desegregation cases heavily impacted ending school segregation in St. Louis and southeastern Missouri. Cahill was appointed in 1975 as circuit judge for St. Louis city, and in 1980, he became the first black federal trial judge in St. Louis when confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

Other firsts include Carol Jackson, the first African-American woman to serve as a district court judge when confirmed in August 1992 to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, and Lisa White Hardwick of Kansas City, who in 2001 became the first African-American woman appointed to the Missouri Court of Appeals.

At the highest level of Missouri's judiciary, Ronnie L. White in 1995 became the first African-American to serve on the Missouri Supreme Court. Current Supreme Court Judge George Draper III, whose father was an assistant attorney general in the 1960s who was refused service at restaurants in Jefferson City, was appointed in 2011.

Other black judicial standouts have left their mark on Missouri's history. Kit Carson Roque Jr. was a graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law who was appointed in March 1992 as a Kansas City municipal judge. His legacy of community activism and dedication to civil rights and child advocacy issues led to the posthumous creation in 1998 of an annual scholarship in his name.

Jimmie Edwards, a circuit judge in St. Louis, believed in the need for an alternative to detention for juveniles who deserved a second chance through education. Edwards collaborated with 45 community partners to take over an abandoned school and opened Innovative Concept Academy in 2009. The academy serves as a "school of last resort" for at-risk youth and has received a number of national accolades. People magazine named Judge Edwards as one of its 2011 Heroes of the Year. But the academy's biggest success is that it has changed the lives of many young people, helping them to turn away from problems such as gang violence.

Another recent success story is that of Shirley Padmore-Mensah, selected last fall as a federal magistrate judge in St. Louis. She escaped Liberia with her family when she was 10, and in 1988, she became a naturalized United States citizen. She graduated from the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis and has been honored by the St. Louis Business Journal, Washington University and Saint Louis University. Her appointment as federal magistrate judge in her adopted home of Missouri speaks so well of our state and our nation.

These are but a few of the many stories of black individuals who rose to leadership positions in the justice system in Missouri. Through their wonderful successes, they have opened the door for so many more young people of color who dream of making a difference in the lives of those around them.

Richard Teitelman is chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court.

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