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Mass. Black Lawyers Association marks 50 years

Group fought for equal legal representation

Anthony W. Neal
Anthony W. Neal is a graduate of Brown University and University of Texas School of Law and has written for the Bay State Banner since 2012.
Mass. Black Lawyers Association marks 50 years
James Dilday, Bruce Hubbard, Wayne Budd, Richard Soden, Fletcher Wiley, Brenda Elam (daughter of the late Clarence Elam), Norman Huggins, Clarence Dilday (the first MBLA president), retired judge Fred Brown and Henry Owens. PHOTO: MASSACHUSETTS BLACK LAWYERS ASSOCIATION

In 1973, three Black lawyers founded the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association (MBLA). Today, the professional association has 110 members.

Founding president Clarence Dilday, along with Henry Owens and Frederick Brown, created the MBLA, which this month celebrated its 50th anniversary, to help increase the number of African American judges, lawyers and court clerks in the state.

Since then, more than 70 Black lawyers have served as state judges, three as Suffolk County district attorneys and one as chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.  1,464 belong to the Massachusetts Bar, according to the 2020-21 Massachusetts Lawyer Census. 

Now retired after teaching criminal law and forensics at UMass Boston for 20 years, Dilday, who turns 83 this July, recalled the establishment of MBLA and some of its early accomplishments.

“It started with three Black lawyers trying to crack the system. One of the most significant things the MBLA did then was help to increase the number of Black judges in Massachusetts,” Dilday said.

Back then, there was a dearth of people of color working in the state’s criminal justice administration. In 1972, Massachusetts voters approved a referendum requiring judges to retire at 70, which created 38 vacancies on the bench. On Oct. 11 that year, Dilday submitted to Gov. Francis W. Sargent a list of 19 Black attorneys he considered eminently qualified for state judgeships — 18 men and one woman. Several were nominated and confirmed as judges, including James W. Bailey, Richard L. Banks, David Nelson and Herbert E. Tucker Jr.

“We pushed for more Black judges and were able to get a handful,” Dilday said.  He added that in its early years, the MBLA was active “on every front and wanted to see more Black court officers as well.”

Dilday also involved the MBLA in community affairs.

“I got the lawyers to support the ‘Stop the Highway’ Movement. It was not the effort of the MBLA alone or Boston’s Black United Front alone, but we did succeed in stopping construction of the highway. I was counsel for the United Front and, of course, Chuck Turner led the movement,” Dilday said, referring to planned interstate highways that would have cut through Roxbury.

“People were resistant to change, but we were changing things,” he said. “There were no more than a handful of lawyers then, and very few at the white firms. To see Black partners in major law firms now is so uplifting. We’ve come a long way but still have a long way to go.”

Asked what he thought of today’s MBLA and its 50th anniversary gala on May 5, Dilday said he was gratified: “I’m very proud of what the MBLA has accomplished, fortunate to be alive to see it. I’m proud of the organization because I think it’s blossomed. The gala must have had a couple of hundred people there.”

Dilday called Black lawyers “the guardians of democracy” and said they “must fight to maintain it.”

Norman Huggins, a graduate of Boston University School of law, was one of the first members of the MBLA.

“Back then, I probably could have named every Black lawyer in the state. I’m not exaggerating when I say that because there were very few” in the early 1970s, he said.

Huggins recalled that the only Black firm in the state then was Tucker & Cardoza. Tucker became a Dorchester District Court judge after Sargent nominated him to succeed Jerome P. Troy in December 1973.

“That was the situation when we started the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association. I was working with Owens and Dilday — Henry Owens and Clarence Dilday. They started the firm a couple of years before that. It was Owens, Dilday & Brown, but then Frederick Brown left,” Huggins said. In 1976, Brown became the first Black ever to serve on a Massachusetts appellate court.

“And then Wayne Budd and Salim Shakur started a firm,” Huggins added. “I say ‘firm’ loosely, because, like Tucker and Cardoza, there were only two of them. [They] got together and another fella, Tom Reilly, came in with them. He later was attorney general. At some point later, some younger guys came into the firm. But back then, in ’71, ’72, that was about it for [Black] law firms.” Reilly, who is white, had grown up with Budd in Springfield.

Huggins indicated that the unfair grading of the state bar exam was a reason there were so few Black lawyers.

“Prior to 1971, the percentage of Blacks who passed the bar was very small, and that was a concern of ours. When we were first organizing, one of the things we were doing was preparing to sue the bar examiners. I think Dennis Tourse might have been one of the attorneys who prepared the complaint,” he said. “After word got out that we were preparing to sue them, the percentage of Blacks who passed the bar went way up.”

Huggins said the bar examiners certainly didn’t want a lawsuit because that would have exposed what was going on in the grading of the exams.

“I don’t believe that the exams were graded fairly, and I don’t believe they were graded anonymously,” he said.

Huggins, like Dilday, said he is proud of what MBLA has become.

“At the gala, you had a room full of young Black lawyers who are intelligent —  folks who are moving, who have ideas. It was really great to see that.”

Sania Santos, a member of the MBLA’s board of directors and co-chair of its Community Service and Social Action Committee, said, “The biggest takeaway from this year’s celebration is that we wanted to honor the attorneys who were the founding members of the organization. They were lawyers 50 years ago, so at this point they were mostly in their 80s or older.”

Documenting the past

Throughout the past year, the MBLA documented the surviving 13 founding or first members’ perspectives on what it was like being a Black lawyer 50 years ago and how it’s changed over the years.

“We wanted to really grasp that moment and be able to have an archive — a documentary for the future. So, we interviewed most of them. We had a videographer make the documentary, which is going to be released soon,” Santos said.

“There were a few who we couldn’t find, and some who had passed away,” she said. But any who could be located attended the gala. 

In keeping with its commitment to community service, the CSSA Committee under Santos’ leadership launched a Know Your Rights program to educate the Boston community about its legal rights. In the past, the committee’s presentations were limited to criminal law.

“I thought that in serving our community, there were other areas of law that we could pick from,” Santos said.

So, this past year, her committee presented a series of free monthly seminars about rights under zoning, landlord-tenant and family laws, and one on trademarking. The seminars are held on the last Wednesday of every month at the Lena Park Community Center.

“We were able to secure three or four, sometimes five, attorneys who were experts in their respective fields, and we would provide a two-to-three-hour seminar on the basic points of the law, but also what’s most relevant in the law,” Santo said. She plans to expand the reach of the Know Your Rights program to other areas of Massachusetts.

In addition, the MBLA has an attorney referral program that identifies attorneys of color who specialize in different areas of law. “If a layperson wants an employment discrimination lawyer, he can contact the MBLA and obtain a list of attorneys who practice employment law,” Santos said. “This not only promotes attorneys of color but also allows clients to be represented by people who look like them.”

Her first year on the MBLA board, though like a part-time job, was extremely rewarding.

“I felt like I was stepping into my purpose in terms of, you know, giving back within this career, versus just reaping the benefits of getting paid well,” she said.

Santos hopes other attorneys will find time to give back.

“You can make time, no matter how busy you are, to give back, whether it’s through the MBLA or other ways,” she said. “Volunteer your knowledge of the law to advance the community.”

Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association, MBLA