In 1896, the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson held that racial segregation was constitutional under the “separate but equal” doctrine. Response to Plessy, particularly among Southern states, was swift. In Virginia, state and local bodies enacted laws and implemented policies designed to pass constitutional scrutiny to limit African Americans’ access to the political process and economic and educational opportunities. African American lawyers were not immune to these actions.
Having been denied membership in the American Bar Association, in 1907 a group of African American attorneys formed the National Negro Bar Association (NNBA) in Little Rock, Arkansas. In August 1922, the NNBA held its 14th annual conference in Norfolk, Virginia, bringing many of the top legal minds from across the country to Norfolk. In October 1923, African American members of the local bar formed the Tidewater Bar Association (TBA). Founding members included TBA officers Walter L. Davis, President; R.H. Pree, Vice President; D.H. Edwards, Recording Secretary; V.C. Hodges, Corresponding Secretary; and A. Rainey, Treasurer. The TBA was renamed the Twin City Bar Association (TCBA). Members of the TCBA worked collectively and collaboratively with organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to challenge legalized segregation and discrimination that existed at the state and local levels; to combat residential segregation, underfunded segregated schools, and disparities in pay for teachers at those schools. By 1933, the TCBA was instrumental in the effort to encourage African Americans to register to vote and assist residents in the community to become qualified voters.
The TCBA also left its mark on the landscape of the local legal system and community. In 1954, the Old Dominion Bar Association (ODBA), the statewide bar association for minority attorneys in Virginia, held workshops in Norfolk at the Young Park Recreational Center on civil rights procedures for local attorneys. The ODBA and TCBA met regularly to collaborate on this initiative. The TCBA also worked to attain fair and equitable treatment of all individuals in the courtroom. Toward this end, in 1954, twenty-three members of the TCBA, led by attorneys Hilary H. Jones, Jr. and W.T. Mason, Jr., endorsed a candidate for the Corporation Court of Norfolk. In 1955, several members of the TCBA unsuccessfully applied for membership in the Norfolk Portsmouth Bar Association, which at the time did not have any African American members. TCBA president Hilary H. Jones, Jr., and members Victor J. Ashe, C. Arnett Bibbins, Yolande H. Chambers, E. Armistead Dawley, Jr., T. Ione Diggs, J. Hugo Madison, Sr., William T. Mason, Jr. and James A. Overton were all denied membership.
Nevertheless, the TCBA and its members continued to press on and to advocate for change. By unanimous vote in 1957, the TCBA denounced the erection of artificial barriers and restrictions to deny Virginians the right to use public facilities based on race and announced the organization’s support for “any lawful action” to end segregation. From time to time, various members of the TCBA (including Victor J. Ashe, C. Arnett Bibbins, James Gay, Joseph L. Jordan, Jr., and Thomas W. Young) ran for city council, without success.
Eventually, the efforts of the TCBA and its members contributed to several “firsts”:
Since these “firsts,” members of the TCBA and South Hampton Roads Bar Association (as the TCBA is now known) have continued to distinguish themselves as members of the Virginia general assembly and other state and local elected positions; as judges on all levels of Virginia’s judiciary and as judges on the Federal Court bench; as Commonwealth Attorneys, assistant Commonwealth Attorneys and defense attorneys; as City Attorneys and assistant city attorneys; leading legal aid offices; working at private law firms as associates, partners, and managing partner; in leadership roles with other local and statewide bar associations (including the first African American president of the Norfolk and Portsmouth Bar Association); and in leadership roles with non-profits and other community organizations. In 2016, the Virginia State Bar recognized the South Hampton Roads Bar Association (SHRBA) as the Local Bar Association of the Year.
More recently, SHRBA members who have excelled are:
Additionally, the SHRBA has partnered with and mentored law students; and collaborated with the Old Dominion Bar Association, the Virginia Beach Bar Association, the Norfolk and Portsmouth Bar Association, and the Hampton Roads Community Foundation on programs to enrich the legal profession and the community at large.
Among other activities, SHRBA members donated pro bono services at a “No Bills Night” hosted by the Virginia State Bar Young Lawyers Conference and the Urban League of South Hampton Roads; participated in a Senior Law Day and an extension of the “So You’re 18” program; have been speakers at the Virginia State Bar Bar Leaders Institute; served as speakers on career panels at local law schools; led pre-law events to promote diversity in the next generation of lawyers; and conducted school supply and holiday toy drives.
As the SHRBA marks its 100th Anniversary in 2023, the organization looks forward to continuing to serve the South Hampton Roads legal community and the community at large.