Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Elsie Law's Daily Dose Of The Law

In addition to being: A scholar, a political activist, an entertainer- who mastered various genres of art, a professional athlete, and a man who mastered many languages- among other things; Paul Robeson was also an attorney.

He attended Columbia University Law School in New York, and graduated in 1923. He took a job at a law firm. However, despite his brilliance, Paul Robeson had difficulty maneuvering in the law profession due to the racism he was subjected to.

In "Paul Robeson: A Biography," author Martin Duberman reveals: "...The offer came from Louis William Stotesbury, a Rutgers alumnus (class of 1890) and trustee and, at one point in his career, adjutant general for the state of New York, who had frequently lent a helping hand to the schools graduating athletes. Still, the offer to Robeson was special: he would be the only Black in the Stotesbury and Miner law office, secretarial staff included- and in a country where even the handful of Afro-American banks and insurance companies were loath to hire lawyers of their own race. The firm specialized in estates and was currently involved in litigation over Jay Gould's will; Stotesbury assigned Robeson the job of preparing a brief for it.

He worked away diligently (indeed, when the Gould case came to trial, his brief was used) but not comfortably. His color (along with his prepossessing physique) made him a conspicuous presence in the office, and it was commented on, in unfriendly asides, from the first. After a few weeks, the covert mistreatment blossomed into open ugliness: when Robeson buzzed for a stenographer to take down a memorandum of law, she refused- 'I never take dictation from a ni**er,' she purportedly said, and walked out.

Robeson took the matter to Stotesbury, who genuinely commiserated. The two men discussed the situation frankly and fully. Stotesbury expressed admiration for Robeson's abilities but told him straight out that his prospects for a career in law were limited: the firm's wealthy White clients were unlikely ever to agree to let him try a case before a judge, for his race would prove a detriment. Stotesbury said he might be willing to consider opening a Harlem branch of the office and put Robeson in charge of it, but Paul decided instead to resign...

A decade later, after more reflection, Robeson concluded he could never have entered 'any profession where the highest prizes were from the start denied to me.' He never took the bar exam, never again practiced as a lawyer."

[SIDEBAR: Paul Robeson was an active advocate for freedom throughout his whole life. Although the law profession wasn't particularly his calling, other brilliant attorneys picked up and carried the baton. African-American lawyers, and lawyers of other ethnicities as well, who are willing to legally fight in favor of the interest of "the people" are still very much needed. Hypothetical question: Is that your calling? If so, then God speed. May we all fulfill our life's callings.]

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