Maybe it’s just me, but the world seems to be moving and evolving at an ever-faster pace. Thanks to the instantaneous nature of mass and social media, the events and personalities of the past seem quickly forgotten, sacrificed to endless news cycles of both relevant and irrelevant information. And now, with the new coronavirus pandemic, the world, and news, is moving at even faster pace than ever before.
Through the daily bombardment, it can be easy to collectively lose the sense of who we are as it relates to where and who we come from.
History matters. And if not captured, it, and a sense of self, can be lost forever.
Thankfully, a group of leaders in the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers (WAAL) dedicated themselves to capturing and lifting up the stories and history of those who came before us. Through their labor, they have published a booklet, The History of Wisconsin’s Black Lawyers 2019. Their collaboration captures histories of 11 black Wisconsin attorneys from the late 1800s through the 1960s. In addition, it includes a brief history of black legal organizations in Wisconsin, as well as a roster of Wisconsin black lawyers from 1888 to 2018.
The booklet is archived on WisBar.org, along with other legal history resources, including Pioneers in the Law: The First 150 Women, the history of Wisconsin’s first 150 women attorneys, available at wisbar.org/aboutus/legalhistory.
In documenting the achievements of these attorneys, WAAL has captured not only their struggles and barriers but also extraordinary successes and contributions. The featured black lawyers were an incredible group of innovators, leaders, mentors, intellectuals, pioneers, advocates, public servants, teachers, and most profoundly, trailblazers.
William T. Green was born near Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada in May 1860. He immigrated to the United States in 1884. After moving to Wisconsin in 1887 and working as a janitor in the state capitol, he became one of the first black graduates of the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1892.
They have helped shape who and what the legal community is today, opening doors of opportunity, while helping to close doors of inequality. Theirs is a collective story of “firsts” that hopefully, as we move along the arch of history, becomes the commonplace. It is not just “their,” but “our” shared history. One that we must all learn, remember, raise up, and most importantly honor.
The committee members who put together the booklet are trailblazers themselves, each worthy of their own story being shared. Thus, the challenge and opportunity for the next generation are to capture, understand, and value the shoulders on which we all stand.
By capturing our history, we develop a better understanding of who we are and what has shaped the profession and the communities in which we live.
History does matter. We must pause to understand and embrace it. These are stories that inform, inspire, and ultimately lift us all.
They have helped shape who and what the legal community is today, opening doors of opportunity, while helping to close doors of inequality.