A Celebration of the History of Black Lawyers

From The Practice July/August 2017
Highlighting key stories about the profession you may have missed

On June 5, 2017, the Center on the Legal Profession hosted its third annual awards dinner. Previous awards dinners centered on topics within the legal profession, including “Women as Lawyers” and “Leaders and the Changing Role of the Global General Counsel.” This year, held at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the awards dinner had a rich theme that provided for yet another special night: “A Celebration of the History of Black Lawyers.”

The evening opened with remarks from NMAAHC’s founding director, Lonnie Bunch III, about both the history contained within the walls of the museum as well as the sustained effort required to make the museum a reality. The Center’s Award for Professional Excellence was presented to three distinguished individuals in the legal profession: Kenneth Chenault, CEO of American Express; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and Judge Robert Wilkins, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. After a powerful saxophone rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by Branford Marsalis, the night turned to its most prestigious honor, the Center’s Award for Global Leadership. In accepting the award, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., renowned civil rights figure and senior counsel at Akin Gump, gave a stirring speech on the day’s political climate and the role of lawyers in the never-ending struggle for justice (for the text of this speech, see “We Have Been Here Before”).

The night capped off a full day that demonstrated the Center’s three-pronged mission of researching, teaching, and bridging. Earlier that afternoon, at the Center’s fourth annual colloquium, A History of Black Lawyers: Research Across the Decades, the Center unveiled its most recent study, Report on the State of Black Alumni II. After presenting this latest study, David B. Wilkins moderated a panel to discuss its findings that included Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of the Howard University School of Law; John W. Daniels Jr., chair emeritus at Quarles & Brady; and Kieth Cockrell, financial center client management and life services executive at Bank of America. With academic, private practice, and corporate perspectives represented, the event was a thorough, dynamic rollout of this well-researched study.

Altogether it made for both an afternoon and evening to remember. It was fitting that the dinner was held in the beautiful NMAAHC—representing the long struggles of the past, the promise of the future, and the intervening space that remains—with some of the profession’s top minds coming together to exchange ideas and share experiences in celebration of the history of black lawyers.