Hidden History: William Herbert Johnson, the first African American graduate of Syracuse University’s College of Law, will be posthumously admitted to NYS Bar

Hidden History

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — This is a historic week for Syracuse University’s College of Law and one local family as the college’s first African-American graduate will be posthumously admitted to the New York State bar. William Herbert Johnson graduated from SU in 1903, but because of racial injustices, he was unable to gain admission to the New York State Bar. But Friday, October 18, 2019, that will all change.

In this edition of Hidden History, NewsChannel 9’s Jennifer Sanders explains in the story below how this slice of hidden history has changed the legal landscape in Syracuse, New York.

The story of William Herbert Johnson begins in 1875 in what was known as the 15th Ward – just east and south of downtown Syracuse.

“When he was two-years-old his father purchased a home at 618 East Washington Street and he stayed there until he was 80 or 81 or 82 years old,” recalled Calvin Johnson, William Herbert Johnson’s grandson.

The Johnson family name was an integral part of not only the 15th Ward, but of the fabric of Central New York.

“I’d go over my grandfather’s house and sit on the porch in his rocker and he would greet everyone as they came from the old Bethany Baptist Church, which used to be on Washington Street, and they would say, ‘Hi Pa Johnson, how are you doing?’ And I’m like does he know everybody?” said Thomas Johnson, William Herbert Johnson’s grandson.

His grandsons, Calvin and Thomas Johnson, have fond memories of the days they spent with their grandfather. His love for family, community, and education helped mold them into the men they are today.

“He had a library with the SU Law Review, the Harvard Law Review and a number of the classics. He would take out a book and say, ‘Sit down and read,'” Thomas Johnson remembered.

William Herbert Johnson’s depth of knowledge and desire to learn paved the way for him to graduate from Boston University. He then served in the Spanish-American War. But Syracuse was home, so he came back and enrolled at Syracuse University and became the first black student at the College of Law.

“In the late 1890s, lawyers of color were not around and he was a pioneer,” said Calvin Johnson.

Professor Paula Johnson, who teaches law at Syracuse University, said all of Johnson’s credentials and everything about him bespoke excellence, aiding in his acceptance to law school. Like many, she’s inspired by Johnson’s perseverance, despite his difficult journey more than 100 years ago.

“There were concerns about racism that he experienced. It wasn’t a very easy road that he traveled being the only black student at the College of Law,” said Professor Johnson.

But William Herbert Johnson excelled. He was the valedictorian and graduated with honors in 1903. That didn’t seem to mean much after graduation.

“He was denied admission to the New York State Bar. He could have been a full-fledged member and accomplish all types of things, but he was denied that opportunity,” Professor Johnson said.

The color of his skin derailed his dream. But his determination was stronger than their denial and his passion persevered.

“His classmates would give him legal work to do, but they wouldn’t put their name on that paper to give him the personal recommendation that he needed to be admitted,” said Thomas Johnson.

His quiet legal expertise opened doors for people of color across the region, creating a lasting impact.

“Here is the irony and the insult. People were aware of his ability and lawyers would ask him for his advice on cases, but he couldn’t argue himself,” said Professor Johnson.

When he died in 1965, his family worked to right the historic wrong against their grandfather. A petition was filed by Felicia Collins Ocumarez and the Syracuse Black Law Alumni Collective (SyracuseBLAC) and granted just last month.

Now, more than 116 years later, William Herbert Johnson, will be admitted to the New York Bar.

“The culmination of an injustice is finally being corrected and we’ve worked on this for years to try to get this accomplished,” said Thomas Johnson.

The Posthumous Admission of William Herbert Johnson L’1903 to the New York State Bar will be held in a special private ceremony on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019 from 10 a.m. – noon. For more click here.

For more stories from Jennifer D. Sanders, follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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