Erica Thompson
 
| The Columbus Dispatch

When Kamala Harris was selected as the running mate for now President-elect Joe Biden, retired attorney Sandra Hicks Cox was thrilled.

Not only are both graduates of Howard University who developed law careers in Alameda County, California, but both also share the knowledge of how hard female Black lawyers have to work to find success.

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“It’s wonderful,” said 81-year-old Hicks Cox, the oldest-living Black woman to graduate from Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law. “I’m proud of her because that’s what we have to be. … It was real clear that we had no choice but to be at the top of the list.”

Needing to work twice as hard: Black women are few among lawyers

This notion that Black people must work twice as hard to get ahead is common in many industries, especially when they are the only one, or one of a few, in the room. From 2009 to 2018, minority women accounted for only 8% of lawyers in U.S. firms, according to a report by the National Association for Law Placement. And only 3% were partners. 

Within those small groups, Black/African American women were the least represented, the report said. A separate 2018 report by Vault and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association found that Black women represented just 1.73% of attorneys among 237 law firms surveyed.

When Hicks Cox entered law school, she was one of few Black students, and the only Black woman. In 1962, she became just the fourth Black woman to graduate in the school’s history. (The first was in 1936.) The fifth, Theresa Doss, graduated in 1964 and went on to be a Michigan judge. As their careers progressed, both women would face microaggressions based on their race and gender.

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Reflecting on their careers amid a society ingrained with racism, the women are very matter-of-fact about their success.

“The expectation was we would do what we had to do,” said Hicks Cox, who now lives in San Francisco. “And that was how it was.”

Growing up, navigating life and law school in the American South

Both Hicks Cox and Doss were born in 1939 in the South, and their families came to Ohio as part of the Great Migration of six million African Americans who moved north beginning in the early 20th century.

At 7 years old, Hicks Cox left Baker, Louisiana, to move to the East Side of Columbus, where her father, H. Beecher Hicks, got a job as pastor of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. The importance of education was instilled in Hicks Cox from an early age: Her grandfather was the president of the historically Black Leland College in her hometown.

Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Doss remembers experiencing racism, beginning with her private, Lutheran school, which was all-Black due to segregation. She also remembers her father running into trouble when he wanted to buy a new Chevrolet truck in town.

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“They told him, ‘No (N-word) is going to be driving a new truck,’” said Doss, 81, who now lives in Detroit.

He had to drive hundreds of miles north to Birmingham to buy the vehicle.

Despite how Black people were treated, Doss said her family felt a sense of pride. But her father had trouble finding work and moved the family to Lorain, Ohio, where he got a job at a steel mill when Doss was 7.

While Hicks Cox studied political science as an undergraduate at Howard, a historically Black college where everyone looked like her, Doss was one of a small group of Black women in her dorm at Ohio University.

The students were able to run for office at the residence, and Doss and her friend were elected to two of the positions. But when Doss decided to run again, this time for president, she recalls white students saying, “Oh, the Black people are going to take over the dorm.’”

Then, things got worse.

“They took some of our stuff out of our drawers and messed it up,” she said.  

Doss lost the election, and subsequently moved to another dorm. She graduated in three and a half years with a degree in history and government.

In law school, Doss said she and the two other women classmates, both white, felt they had to stick together. (There were no Black men, and there weren’t any Black professors until 1975, according to Ohio State.)

Still, neither woman could recall any blatant prejudice in law school.

“There were probably some who would have been just as happy if we weren’t there, but we were able to do what we had to do without feeling that it was a problem,” Hicks Cox said.

Facing discrimination from judges, colleagues

Following graduation, Hicks Cox met her husband during a visit to Alameda County, California, and relocated. As she began her career, Black women mentors were hard to find.

“They didn’t have a lot of Black women lawyers at that point,” she said. “I was fortunate enough to get connected to Black (male) attorneys right from the beginning, who were well thought of and well-known. So, some of that smeared off on me.”

One of those men was Donald McCullum, who ran his own law firm, and eventually was appointed judge of Alameda County Superior Court.

However, she wasn’t shielded from discrimination. She recalled a judge who would fail to remember her when she walked into the courtroom.

 “The clerk got in the habit of saying, ‘This is Mrs. Cox, your honor,’” she said.

Doss said she had similar experiences.

“They always thought you were the clerk. They didn’t think you were the attorney,” Doss said. “They didn’t treat you like they did the men.”

According to sociologist Tsedale M. Melaku, Black women lawyers are often told they don’t fit the part. That reality inspired Melaku to write her 2019 book, “You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism,” which features interviews with Black women lawyers.

She explained the issue in an article last year for Harvard Business Review.

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“It’s the idea that the norms of success, ability and competence are tied to looking a certain way — usually white and male,” wrote Melaku, who teaches at the City University of New York. “(There is also) the need to work longer or harder to get noticed and the pressure to be flawless, because the stereotypical assumption of incompetence leaves little to no margin for error. … Many of the women I spoke with felt that they were unable to recover from marginal errors that were often deemed fatal to their advancement.”

Hicks Cox, whose career included working for a legal assistance foundation and setting up the in-house legal department at the Kaiser Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to examining health policy issues, echoed this sentiment.

“We could not afford to not know what the hell we were doing,” she said. “You’ve got to be as good or better than everybody else in the room.”

Doss, who remained in the Midwest, worked as a law librarian in Lansing, Michigan, before getting a position as assistant attorney general for the state from 1966 to 1976. She went on to be appointed to Detroit’s Common Pleas Court, where she served until 1981, when she became chief judge of Detroit’s 36th District Court — and the second Black woman to be elected as a judge in the state. She served until 2003.

Making a more diverse table of lawyers, judges

As a judge, Doss joined several associations with the intent of helping minorities in the legal field. She became the first Black president of the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan. She was also a member Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission, which reviews grievances against judges.

“If there was a complaint about a Black judge, my being in the room made a difference in how they discussed it and how they did things,” she said.

When she joined the Michigan District Judges Association, she was the only Black person and woman at the table. She recalled looking around at all of the white men, who were all wearing blue shirts, red ties and tan pants.

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“I said, ‘There’s something wrong with this,’” she recalled. “‘You come from all over the state. You all showed up with the same outfit on. That means you all have the same mindset.’ … I said, ‘We’ve got to change this table.’”

Doss recruited other members to make the group more diverse.

Today, more Black women are graduating from law school, but there is still much progress to be made. For example, in spring 2017, Black women accounted for 4.4% of Ohio State’s law school.

Among the class of 2017 were Martina Ellerbe and Angela Frost, who both participated in the Black Law Students Association.

“It was nice to be able to have people that looked like me that were going through the same thing,” said Ellerbe, 28, of Gahanna, who is an associate at BakerHostetler.

She said there is a network of Black lawyers in town.

“We all try to go to happy hour or lunch or dinner,” she said. “We try to keep our network together so that we at least know who we are.”

But Ellerbe was reminded of the need for more representation.

“We were all at an event and I remember (hearing), ‘Welcome to the 1%,’” she said.

Frost, an associate legal counsel at Abercrombie & Fitch, said Black women lawyers still deal with subtle, offensive comments. She recalled a white law school student questioning the internship Frost received through Ohio State’s minority clerkship program.

“The student was saying that that wasn’t fair,” said Frost, 30, of Westerville. “I asked her, ‘How did you get your job?’”

The classmate said she got an opportunity to interview for a position with an attorney because he attended the same church as her mother.

“With those types of comments and situations, you’re just trying to talk through, ‘Hey, these are why we have these (minority programs) in place,’” Frost said.

Frost added that she is hopeful about the future and mindful about her role in inspiring other Black women lawyers.

“Obviously, I’m doing my job to the best of my ability, but also (thinking), what are those intangibles that you bring to the job every day as well? What legacy am I leaving behind?”

The legacy of predecessors like Hicks Cox and Doss could probably be summed up with one word: perseverance.

“There were situations where there were people who were not too happy about me being there,” Hicks Cox said. “But that’s their problem.”

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@miss_ethompson

Black Out

This is part of a nine-story series that explores the ways in which prejudice and systemic racism impact Black Americans.

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