Black History Month is an important way to recognize and celebrate achievements by African Americans throughout United States history. In Central New York, the Onondaga Historical Association is also commemorating Black History Month by sharing stories of African Americans who’ve made their mark right here in our community.
William Herbert Johnson was known as the very first African American to graduate from the Syracuse University Law School. Johnson, not only graduated in 1903 but did so with top honors and went on to give the valedictorian address at the university’s commencement.
OHA Curator of History, Robert Searing, says that despite his high academic honor, Johnson was denied admission to the New York State Bar because of racial inequality.
“Back in those days once you passed the bar exam you had to get an apprenticeship with a local law office to get into the bar to be accepted, he would just not get hired,” Searing adds.
Johnson spent his life fighting for social justice in other ways.
“He works as a local pillar of the community helping out his fellow African Americans who don’t have access to great lawyers,” Searing says. “Johnson himself is a phenomenal lawyer and so he helps his community that way.”
Mr. Johnson worked a variety of jobs to care for his wife and four children, working first as a porter, before working as a clerk for the Underwriters Association of New York State for most of his career.
“Pa” Johnson, as he was known in the 15th Ward, offered legal advice to members of his community, and acted as a liaison and consultant for many firms, in an unofficial capacity. After being evicted from their home at 618 East Washington Street in 1863, Mr. Johnson moved to Westcott Street. He died in 1965, at the age 90.
In October of 2019, Johnson was admitted to the New York State Bar Association posthumously.
Johnson’s story is one of many that the OHA will share as they commemorate Black History Month through their Permanent Freedom Exhibit. Visit them to learn more and see a display of other historical items all month long, including an incredibly rare full-plate daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass, Circa 1848.
To learn more about this exhibit and all others visit, CNYHistory.org.