Last week the Washington University School of Law hosted a celebration of the 65th anniversary of the Shelley v. Kraemer decision, where the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that housing covenants restricting home ownership based on race violate the 14th Amendment.
The event, held in the law school’s moot courtroom, was also a celebration of African-American legal community.
Kimberly Norwood, professor of law and of African and African-American Studies at Washington University, was the first in a series of powerful speakers. She remembered visiting with Margaret Bush Wilson, lead attorney for the Shelleys in the landmark 1948 case, not long before the legal legend passed in 2009.
“Her father was a real estate broker who sold the Shelleys their home in 1945,” Norwood said of Wilson.
The home with the restrictive deed covenant that the Shelley family purchased was located in the Lewis Place neighborhood, just north of the Central West End in St. Louis.
Wilson had graduated from the Lincoln University School of Law in 1943, so as a beginning lawyer she observed seasoned civil rights lawyers begin to prepare the Shelleys’ case.
“She told me that exposure to those lawyers cast the mold of the kind of lawyer she wanted to be,” Norwood said of Wilson.
Next to take the podium was John G. Baugh, professor of African and African-American Studies at Washington University and the first person to hold a new endowed chair in Arts & Sciences named for Wilson. He told another tale of the local African-American legal community involving, of all people, future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
At the time, in 1974, Thomas was himself a green attorney freshly graduated from law school at Yale University, struggling to find a job. U.S. Senator Jack Danforth, who graduated from Yale with divinity and law degrees, suggested that Thomas move to St. Louis and take the Missouri bar exam.
“They happened to be dinner mates about this time, and the senator asked Margaret Bush Wilson where Clarence Thomas might live in St. Louis,” Baugh retold the story Wilson had told him. “And she said, ‘He will live with me.’”
That summer, Thomas lived with Wilson and her family. “It was the first truly intellectual black family Clarence Thomas had ever seen,” Baugh said. “He watched her husband Robert do the New York Times crossword puzzle every day – in ink.”
At the end of his stay, Baugh said, Thomas asked Wilson what he owed her. “You owe me nothing,” Baugh said she responded. “When you find someone else in need, help them.”
The event’s featured speaker, Theodore M. Shaw, professor of professional practice at Columbia University School of Law, was introduced by Rufus J. Tate Jr., principal of the Tate Law Firm. Tate spoke with awe about Shaw, who was an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for 23 years, serving (among other roles) as associate director-counsel (1993-2004) and director-counsel and president (2004-08).
“This man is always on cases that go before the U.S. Supreme Court,” Tate said of Shaw. “He doesn’t touch anything unless it’s going to the Supreme Court.”
Shaw then took the podium and proceeded to share with the sizable audience, comprised mostly of African-American students, what life is like at the top of the civil rights legal profession. Not surprisingly, for a field based on arguing, it is contentious at the top.
He reminded the audience that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he worked, was separated from the NAACP by the IRS in 1957. So when Wilson was serving as president of the St. Louis NAACP and the Missouri NAACP, as well as chair of the national NAACP Board of Directors, she was leading organizations that had a shared history with the Fund, but the organizations were distinct and, in fact, often in conflict. In the 1980s the NAACP even sued the Fund, unsuccessfully, for trademark infringement.
“I joined the Fund in the early ‘80s, when that was going on,” Shaw said. “There were titans on either side. The lawyers from the two organizations had relationships. It was a complex time. I and others understood who Margaret Bush Wilson was and her commitment to civil rights, but institutions have egos – and egos are realities.”
First among the event’s many co-sponsors was the Mound City Bar Association. Mound City President Nicole Colbert-Botchway and Vice President Jared Boyd both gave brief remarks. Norwood said the event was the “brainchild ” of her soror, Colbert-Botchway.