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National Bar Association honors legal trailblazers in St. Louis conference

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Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2010 12:00 am

This year the National Bar Association hosted its mid-year conference in St. Louis at the Renaissance St. Louis Grand Hotel. The black attorneys’ association held its 30th annual Gertrude E. Rush Award Dinner honoring those who contributed to making a difference in society and in their profession.

Honorees included the late Margaret Bush Wilson, Judge Charles A. Shaw, NBA Historian Emerita and attorney Cleota Proctor Wibkein, NBA Past President Paulette Brown and famed litigation attorney Willie E. Gary.

The master of ceremony was CBS News National Correspondent and CBS Sunday Evening News Anchor Russ Mitchell.

The dinner started off with lawyers from the St. Louis area welcoming and thanking NBA members, explaining how important it is to honor attorneys who give so much to their profession and society.

Rhonda F. Williams, president of the local affiliate Mound City Bar Association, spoke about the people who came before her and showing appreciation.

“We stand on your shoulders,” Williams said.

Honored first was Margaret Bush Wilson, who passed last year yet remains known throughout the St. Louis area and nation as a pioneer civil rights attorney.

Family Court Commissioner Anne-Marie Clarke, committee member of the St. Louis affiliate, gave a warm tribute describing how Wilson taught her more than law, but also life lessons. Clarke explained how she admired Wilson; when Wilson was sick, she still asked others about their well being.

“She was always the one to care about someone else,” Clarke said of Bush Wilson.

Bush Wilson’s son, Robert E. Wilson III, accepted the award. He talked about how she made an impact on him to help outside of the ordinary.

“My mother was so in depth and commanding,” Wilson said.

Cleota Proctor Wibkein received tributes by her sons,"> Editor in Chief Emil Kraig Wilbekin and attorney Erik Jon Wilbekin. Proctor Wibkein always strove to be the best and serve the community. She was pregnant with her second child while in law school. Now she works as a master quilter, with one of her quilts in the permanent collection of the Anacostia Community Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

“I’m the most proud of her because she is the reason I am here today, not because of my life but here in this profession,” Erik Jon Wilbekin said.

“This profession wasn’t agreeable with me and I wasn’t agreeable with it, but she would have nothing of me quitting.”

Emil Kraig talked about how his mother came to school and talked about black history, not realizing how she also has a place in African-American history.

“What people don’t know about my mother is that my mother is history,” Emil Kraig said.

Cleota herself talked about how she did not understand how the award namesake Gertrude E. Rush made it through everything as a lawyer in a time when African Americans were not even considered Americans.

“This has taken me on a wonderful journey,” she said of law and the NBA.

“I thought about Ms. Rush and how a black woman would practice law in 1818 – how she did it. How?”

Judge Shaw felt more than honored and was just happy to be there.

“It’s an honor, really humbling, and I feel blessed. I hope to be fortunate enough to just leave a couple of footprints,” Shaw said.

Willie E. Gary has a reputation as “The Giant Killer” by taking down some of America’s most well-known corporate giants on behalf of his clients. He made it clear that people need to realize not to look down on anyone or forget about those who paved the way before them.

“Never forget the bridge that brought us over. You didn’t get to where you’re at on your own,” Gary said.

Paulette Brown got a tribute from her son who surprised her at the dinner. Brown elaborated on the last time she was in St. Louis back in 1992. Brown remembered how she almost got arrested in St. Louis at the Adam’s Mark Hotel and how the NBA boycotted the hotel. She stressed how the NBA is her family.

“No one can address our issues like we can. We come together to correct a wrong,” Brown said.

Brown expressed how she was so honored that she is recognized for her work. Shaw is part of the New Jersey office of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge LLP, a large firm where four black women are all partners.

“I will do my best to live up to this honor,” Brown said.

Vanita M. Banks, counsel for Allstate Insurance Company, felt the meeting reaffirmed the mission of the NBA.

“This association has advocated justice, equal rights and the voices in our society,” Banks said.

“Lawyers are the natural leaders of our communities, and it's truly our obligation to lift and ensure the next generation so they have those same opportunities as we had.”

The new NBA national president is a St. Louis attorney, Marvis T. Thompson. She gave the association’s mid-year report, and Richard E. Banks, chair of the 30th annual Gertrude E. Rush Award Dinnner Committee, also gave his thanks and expressed how St. Louis has also some pioneers that helped the NBA.

Banks said, “St. Louis truly has some talent.”

The black tie event had musical entertainment by St. Louis’ own Bosman Twins. The theme was “Standing on Shoulders, Keeping the Promise.”

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