Old Dominion Bar Association

The Early Years: 1940-1950

Frederic Charles Carter, Esq. of Richmond, Virginia, was working diligently on an important brief in the law library of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in December 1940, when an assistant librarian motioned for him to move to an alcove in the southeast corner of the library because of a new Supreme Court policy.  Carter, a Negro lawyer, refused to move.  Similarly, he refused an order from the head librarian to come to his office.  The head librarian summoned a police officer who told Carter, “Get going, the librarian wants to speak to you in his office.”  According to  his letter to Chief Justice Preston W. Campbell, Carter responded to the police officer saying, “I am a member of the Bar and don’t have to talk to anyone unless I choose to do so.  If I am under arrest, I would like to know that.”  The police officer left after talking to the librarian, and Carter finished what he was doing about 45 minutes later.  

By letter dated December 23, 1940, Carter inquired of the Chief Justice whether the court had indeed formulated a policy relegating Negro lawyers to a special section of the law library and to complain about his treatment.  Because of illness, Chief Justice Campbell referred Carter’s letter to Acting Chief Justice Holt for proper consideration at the next term of Court.

After several months passed without a response from the Supreme Court, Carter contacted some of his friends about the need to organize a bar association.  In April 1941, he wrote to Valentine & Cooley, saying, “What you said with reference to a meeting of as many of us as could attend at some designated time and place is the proper approach to the end that we be in position to deal effectively in matters of this kind in particular and in matters generally pertaining to us as members of the bar and of the legal profession.”

Immediately thereafter, R. H. Cooley, Jr. of Petersburg, Virginia contacted lawyers in Portsmouth, Norfolk, Newport News, and at the Howard University School of Law to discern their interest in organizing a bar association of all the Negro attorneys in the state and to obtain the names of other lawyers interested in such an organization.  Throughout 1941, the following individuals met to organize the Old Dominion Bar Association:  J. Thomas Hewin, Sr., Roland D. Ealey, James T. Carter, Fredric Charles Carter, J. Byron Hopkins and Oliver W. Hill of Richmond; W. S. Duiguid of Lynchburg; Martin A. Martin of Danville; Robert H. Cooley of Petersburg; Thomas W. Young and J. Eugene Diggs of Norfolk; James Raby of Alexandria; L. Marian Poe of Newport News.

In March 1942 Oliver W. Hill sent a formal notice to the Negro lawyers in Virginia announcing an organizational meeting in Richmond on April 12, 1942.  Pre-registration cost was $1.00, which covered organizational expenses and the cost of dinner at Miller’s Hotel on Second and Leigh Streets.  Twenty-five attorneys attended the meeting, named the organization the Old Dominion Bar Association and elected officers:  Oliver W. Hill, President; L. Marian Poe, Secretary; Martin A. Martin, Vice-President; James M. Morris (of Staunton), Treasurer.  

A meeting to adopt a constitution was held on  May 31, 1942.  Annual dues were $4.50, which prompted Oliver Hill to include on organization notices, “If you are very, very busy – we need you.  If you don’t think you can afford it, you need us.”   

After the May 31st meeting, the organization next met on November 22, 1942, at Miller’s Hotel in Richmond.  The Honorable Charles H. Houston, former President of the National Bar Association was the keynote speaker.  Turkey with all the trimmings was served, and the dinner plus registration cost of $0.85 per person.  

Like the rest of the country, the Old Dominion Bar Association was affected by the war in 1943, and several ODBA members, including its President, Oliver Hill, joined the military.  R. H. Cooley, Jr. ably assumed the role of Acting President and, along with L. Marian Poe, organized the next annual meeting, which was held in July 1944 in Newport News.  At the time, Poe was not only secretary of the Old Dominion Bar Association, but also was Assistant Secretary of the National Bar Association.  

In his call for an Annual Meeting, Cooley wrote to members, “It is absolutely imperative that you close your office all day Saturday (July 22) to be present at the Annual Meeting of ODBA.”  He also stated in the letter, “This meeting is the most important since the organization of the Bar.  Many events have taken place in Virginia, and we, as lawyers, must assume responsibility to our people and ourselves.  Moreover, this convention is designed to supply the “association” which is essentially the source of aid each attorney needs.”

The first session of the two-day meeting began Saturday at 4:00 p.m. with a welcome from W. R. Walker, the Negro lawyer practicing the longest in the Newport News bar.  After other business, Acting President Cooley gave the President’s Report and focused on issues of concern at the time:  War, federalism, the Virginia State Bar (called the Integrated Bar) and the National Bar Association.  

On the War, he urged that the ODBA “…should keep abreast with service legislation in order to aid men and women in uniforms and their families in matters pertaining to insurance, dependency allotments and any other phases necessary to solve their perplexing problems.  There is the matter of advising returning veterans in securing mustering out pay, federal assistance after peace, etc.  We could volunteer aid in the War Department and also the office of the Judge Advocate General.”

On Federal issues he said, “The time is come when our “little backyard” in law is now “national” in scope.  Knowledge of labor legislation, activities of unions is of grave concern to us as practitioners.  We MUST know the F.F.L.S.A.undefined Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, that adjusts wages when labor is part of products moving in interstate commerce.  The bulk of our clients might be among those marginal salaried laborers who would probably be affected.  The Fair Employment Practice Committee, through alert lawyers, could become quite active to curtail discrimination in public war effort jobs.  Also, no evil would befall our Bar Association if more of our members were qualified in the Federal District Courts.  The time might come when important questions might be decided by members of the Federal Courts.”

Interestingly, on the payment of mandatory dues of $3.50 annually to the Virginia State Bar, he noted, “We should be ACTIVE members.  Our Association should always be represented at the meetings of the Virginia State Bar through all members who are within reasonable proximity of such meetings.”

Noting with pride that ODBA member James H. Raby was Regional Director of Region 6 of the National Bar Association, he encouraged paying the $5.00 membership fee to join that organization.

The group also discussed Palmer v. Newport News School Board, a teacher pay equalization case, the Democratic Party Convention in Roanoke, Virginia, and the Davis bus case in Norfolk.  The Honorable Spotswood W. Robinson III delivered the keynote address, “Some Possibilities in the Use of Writ of Error Coram Nobis in Criminal Practice in Virginia”.  

The ODBA compiled a list of Negro lawyers in Virginia.  As of July 1944 there were fifty-four active members, four in the army and three in Washington, D.C, totaling sixty-one lawyers.  These lawyers were spread across the state with some in Norfolk, Richmond, Newport News, Alexandria, Portsmouth, in Danville, Lynchburg, Hampton, and one each in Cape Charles, Gloucester, Manassas, Martinsville, Petersburg, Staunton and Suffolk.

James H. Raby organized the next Annual Meeting, which was held in Alexandria September 1-2, 1945.  The theme of the program was “Plan for Action by Lawyers in Virginia”, and panel leaders were W. R. Walker and Wendell Walker, both of Newport News.  Issues discussed included GI legislation, unemployment, labor and post-war practice in Virginia.  The Executive Board of the ODBA was elected, and the following served:  R. H. Cooley, Jr., President; James H. Raby; First Vice President; William J. Kemp, Second Vice President, L. Marian Poe, Secretary; James M. Morris, Treasurer; T. C. Walker; Inez Fields Scott; and C.A. McKenzie.

The next Annual Meeting, organized by Bertha L. Douglas, was held in Norfolk on September 21, 1946.   Thirty-six persons attended, and the keynote speaker was The Honorable Armond W. Scott, Judge, District of Columbia Municipal Court.  President Cooley welcomed back ODBA the members who had returned from the War:  Oliver W. Hill, Roland Ealey, “Sam” Wilbur Tucker, Raymond J. Valentine and Victor Ashe.

Richmond was the site of the September 1947 Annual Meeting.  At this meeting the ODBA membership decided to use the organization’s strength and prestige to influence the appointment of judges in whom members of the Association had confidence.

Spawned from the need to confront a policy that offended personal and professional dignity, from the need for African-American lawyers to associate for personal and professional growth, and from a need to encourage African-American lawyers to participate in the Virginia State Bar, the ODBA grew into an organization that filled not only those particular needs but one that also has provided continuity of leadership and support with respect to the various concerns of particular interest to African Americans and other people of color.  For example, over the past thirty years, ODBA members diligently, and successfully, worked to ensure the appointment of African-American lawyers to judgeships around the state.

The names and faces have changed over the years, but the ODBA is has remained strong in its resolve to be Virginia’s advocate for equal justice.

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