Celebrating Black History Month with Legal Firsts in Virginia

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To celebrate Black History Month, Spotts Fain will be highlighting a few of the many black attorneys who had a significant impact on equal access to justice in Virginia over the years. This year we are honoring those who were first in important rolls in Virginia. We hope you will join us in recognizing the life, work, and legacies of James A. Fields, Lavina Marian Fleming Poe, William T. Mason, Jr., Willard H. Douglas Jr., John Charles Thomas, Angela Roberts and Leroy R. Hassell, Sr.

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James A. Fields: 1st Black Judicial Officer and Commonwealth’s Attorney (1879)

James A. Fields, who was born enslaved and became a successful lawyer, serving one term in the House of Delegates (1889–1890). In 1882 Fields received his law degree from Howard University and began to practice law in Warwick County (later Newport News). Five years later the area’s voters elected him as commonwealth’s attorney, and in 1889 he won a seat in the General Assembly.

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Lavina Marian Fleming Poe: 1st Black Female Attorney in Virginia (1925)

Poe was married had had two children when she decided to become a lawyer. She worked as a bank teller and attend classes at Howard University Law School. She passed the Virginia State Bar in 1925, becoming the first African American woman to do so. She lived in what is now Newport News, and her practice continued with honors through the 1960s.

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William T. Mason, Jr.: 1st Black Attorney Appointed as an Assistant U.S Attorney (1962)

Mason served the Eastern District of Virginia from 1962-1972, appointed by President John F. Kennedy, Jr. He helped establish the first inter-racial law firm in Norfolk, and was a civil rights activist. He passed away on Feb. 1, 2023 at the age of 96.

Willard H. Douglas, Jr.: 1st Black Judge in Virginia (1974)

A graduate of Howard University Law School, Douglas was the black attorney to be elected a full-time judge in Virginia. In 1974, the Virginia General Assembly elected him to preside in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Richmond. He was also the first African-American to be appointed to the Ethics Committee of the Virginia Supreme Court.

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John Charles Thomas – 1st Black Justice of the Supreme Court of Virgina (1983)

In 1983, Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, becoming the first African-American to do so, and at 32, being the youngest person of any race to sit there.

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Angela Roberts: 1st Black Female Judge in Virginia (1990)

In 1990, the General Assembly elected Roberts a judge of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Richmond, making her the first African-American woman elected a judge in Virginia.

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Leroy R. Hassell, Sr.: 1st Black Chief Justice on Supreme Court of Virginia (2003)

At only 34 years old, Hassell was appointed to the Supreme Court, and later served as Justice of that court from 2003-2011, making him the first African-American Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Spotts Fain publications are provided as an educational service and are not meant to be and should not be construed as legal advice. Readers with particular needs on specific issues should retain the services of competent counsel.