The Tricoastal Woman Thinks About History and Racism

Black Girl MagicOf all the election victories out there, here’s the one that moved me the most: 19 African American women ran as Democrats for judgeships, most for positions in Harris County, Texas (Houston). 17 of them won.

They ran as a group — Harris County Black Girl Magic — for positions on the Court of Criminal Appeals, a number of district courts and county courts at law (the trial courts in Texas), and to be justices of the peace. Being a lawyer is a basic requirement for all these judgeships, except for the justices of the peace. 18 of the women are lawyers.

The two who lost their races were running for the statewide Court of Criminal Appeals. They retain their current positions as judges in Harris county.

They were part of a Democratic wave in Harris County. There were 59 judge slots on the ballot, and Democrats took them all — a shock, given that Republicans had dominated the court elections for some time. It’s possible that they benefitted from the overall support for Beto O’Rourke, which increased turnout.

It’s pleasing on so many levels, but it hits me on a personal one. I can remember when electing one African American woman to such a position would have been a victory. In fact, I knew the first African American woman licensed to practice law in Texas. And by knew, I don’t just mean I met her. I tried cases against her — we were both practicing law at the same time in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Charlye O. Farris was admitted to the Texas Bar in 1953. Now that’s a good many years before I was, but it’s not really all that long ago. 65 years. Think about that. Sixty-five years ago, you couldn’t have had 17 African American women elected to judgeships in Harris County because there weren’t any African American women lawyers in Harris County or anywhere else in Texas, except Wichita County, where Charlye Farris set up her practice. It was her home town.

And she was the only African American attorney in the county until we set up West Texas Legal Services in Wichita Falls and hired J. Edward Hocker. This, mind you, in a county with well over a hundred active lawyers.

She was also the first woman lawyer in town. There were a grand total of eight women lawyers in Wichita County when I worked there in the late 70s. The “women’s bar association” met by calling around to each other to see when we could all go to lunch.

Ms. Farris was a fine lawyer. She wanted to be a judge, too, though the closest she got was a temporary position. I’m sure she would have been pleased to see this group of women take the bench in Harris County, had she lived to see it.

I’m proud to have known her, but at the same time I feel a sense of outrage. It’s a mark of just how bad racism has been in our society that I, born after World War II, am old enough to have known and worked professionally with the first Black woman attorney in Texas.

You can read the history, but knowing people puts a face on it. Until the 1950s, Black women weren’t practicing law in Texas. Until 1950, they couldn’t even go to the best law school in the state (and one of the best in the country). They lived in Texas. They paid taxes in Texas. But they didn’t have the rights they were entitled to.

I shouldn’t have known the first Black woman to practice law in Texas. She should have been way before my time. Such stories should be ancient history. At the very least, they should have started happening in about 1870 or so, and continued on, so that it wouldn’t be remarkable today to see so many Black women become judges in the largest city in Texas.

But one thing about the remarkable success of the women in Houston: they make it very clear that despite the white supremacists running around making threats and the dog whistles from the White House, things really have changed. The wingnuts can scream all they want to. We aren’t going back.

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