By Donza M. Poole,
The Norman S. Minor Bar Association (NSMBA) was founded in 1980 as Cleveland's first full-fledged African American bar association. It grew out of the merger of four African American professional groups and is named in honor of one of Cleveland's foremost trial attorneys, African American attorney Norman Selby Minor. Minor practiced law from 1927 to the mid-1960's. He was a nationally known criminal trial lawyer who worked for many years as a county prosecutor and later as a criminal defense attorney. The Norman S. Minor Bar Association is proud to bear the name of the man known as "The Dean of Trial Lawyers".
Although NSMBA is the first African American bar association in Cleveland, it is by no means the first African-American legal organization in Cleveland. Indeed, four such organizations preceded NSMBA. The earliest such organization dating back to before 1940, is the John M. Harlan Law Club, also known as the John Harlan Law Club. The John Harlan Law Club was led by numerous legal pioneers, including Lawrence O. Payne, who in 1924 became Cleveland's first African American city prosecutor, and Perry Brooks Jackson, the club's president during 1940-41 who became Ohio's first African-American judge in 1942. The club met regularly at the Phillis Wheatley Association, a social service organization founded by Jane B. Hunter; Hunter herself was a nurse who graduated from the evening division of Cleveland's law school and passed the Ohio bar examination in 1926. The John Harlan Law Club also was active in the National Bar Association during the early years, even hosting a National Bar Association meeting in November 1945. In 1946, at their anniversary meeting, a young and dynamic Thurgood Marshall was the club's keynote speaker.
The second African American legal organization to be formed in Cleveland was the Cleveland Lawyers Association. The Cleveland Lawyers Association spun off from the John Harlan Law Club, probably in the 1960's. One of its earliest presidents was Oscar Trivers.
The 1970's would see the formation of two more African American legal organizations, the Cleveland Chapter of the National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL), led by Stanley Tolliver, and the Black Women Lawyers of Greater Cleveland, founded by Almeta A. Johnson and Annette G. Butler. The four organizations each had their own focus. The John Harlan Law Club and the Cleveland Lawyers Association focused on the legal profession, but tended to be more of social in nature than the other two groups. In contrast, the Cleveland Chapter of the NCBL was formed in 1974 to seek out and eradicate racism, to vigorously defend Blacks whose human and legal rights had been denied, and to use legal tools to advance the economic, educational, political, and social institutions for Black people. At its peak, the NCBL Cleveland Chapter was very active in the area discrimination, particularly employment discrimination. In 1974, the organization filed a class action suit in federal court against the Cleveland Municipal Court alleging discriminatory hiring practices.
The suit resulted in a consent decree being signed by the Municipal Court judges wherein the court agreed to follow fair employment practices. Butler v, C/eve/and Municipal Court, No, C74-446 (USDC ND Ohio /975), (Note: The Butler in that case was Annette G. Butler, co-founder of the Black Women Lawyers group). For its work, the Cleveland Chapter was named "Chapter of the Year" by the National Conference of Black Lawyers at its 1975 national convention in Washington, D. C. The NCBL Cleveland Chapter was also one of the first African American legal organizations to interview and rate judicial candidates. The organization publicized its ratings and recommendations by buying ad space in the local papers. The Black Women Lawyers group was formed in the early 1970's, probably in 1972 or 1973, to address issues affecting African American women which were not being addressed by the other lawyer groups. The group provided Black women lawyers with a way to network with each other and provided a platform for Black women lawyers to gain visibility in the legal community. Several of its members later became trailblazers in the legal field. For example, in 1975, founder and first president Almeta A. Johnson became the first female to serve as chief prosecutor for the City of Cleveland. In 1991, member Stephanie Tubbs Jones was elected chief prosecutor of Cuyahoga County. With this election, Stephanie Tubbs Jones became the first female prosecutor of a major metropolitan area in the United States.
Despite the successes of the predecessor organizations, by 1980, all four groups had become relatively inactive.
The declining state of African-American legal organizations in Cleveland ultimately led to the merger of the four groups into the Norman S. Minor Bar Association. But the transformation did not take place overnight.
Talks of merger surfaced several years prior to NSMBA's eventual formation in 1980. On June 24, 1976, a meeting of African American attorneys calling themselves the Young Lawyers Group was held to discuss "the desirability or need of our coming together as young lawyers to discuss and pursue matters of mutual concern to us as well as other Black lawyers in the Cleveland area." (Young Lawyers Group, Ad Hoc Committee Report dated July 15, 1976). The Ad Hoc Committee of the Young Lawyers Group met on July 8, 1976, and recommended that the Young Lawyers Group pursue the establishment of one strong viable Black bar association. The group considered the history of the existing Black bar organizations and concluded that there was a need for strength and direction within the ranks. But they decided against forming a new formal organization of young lawyers. Instead, they decided to join the John Harlan Law Club and exercise their best efforts together with existing members to make it the strong organization they envisioned it could be. The group chose the John Harlan Law Club to pursue their goal because the club was an established and well-respected organization, it had an office facility, it had a larger membership than the other organizations, and it had a budget for the Law and Justice Program. The group also decided to call a meeting and invite the officers of the various existing organizations to attend to discuss their views of a merger of the groups into one bar association. The purpose of the meeting was "[t]o let our thinking be known about merger. To find out why there has been no merger and the present thinking of such groups about merger." It is not clear whether this meeting was ever held, however it appears this early merger movement never gathered much momentum. But the thoughts of merger did not die completely.
In 1980, the four African American legal organizations, while still in existence, were stagnating. Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Ronald B. Adrine, who spearheaded the successful merger of the groups, recently recounted the following in a brief recollection about the origins of the Norman S. Minor Bar Association:
"The Norman S. Minor Bar Association came into being in the Spring of 1980. It was the result of a conversation that took place in the chambers of the late Justice Lloyd O. Brown (Justice Brown was the second African-American to serve on the Ohio Supreme Court). Present that morning were Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Judge Brown and myself. As I now recall it, the conversation concerned the then-existing situation facing African American lawyers in Greater Cleveland. We bemoaned the fact that Cleveland had four distinct Black law clubs, but that all four were virtually non-functional. I remember distinctly saying, 'Somebody really ought to do something about that.
Subsequent to leaving Judge Brown's chambers, it suddenly dawned upon me that I had been listening to Black lawyers say 'Somebody ought to do something about that,' for as long as I had been practicing law in Cleveland. I decided that it was time that someone actually do something about it.
I had an idea, and decided to see if it made any sense. I contacted a number of other younger African American Cleveland lawyers and invited them to meet early one Saturday morning at the coffee shop of' the old Hollenden House Hotel, on East Sixth Street and Superior Avenue, in downtown Cleveland. Those who attended included, Lillian Greene, James Hardiman, Gerald Jackson, and myself.
The idea I put before them was the formation of an African American Bar Association in Cleveland. This bar association would be a first.
Blacks had formed law clubs here in the past. This new entity would differ, in that it would be organized to function in the same manner as the majority community's organized bar. Committees would be formulated around specific areas of practice and areas of concern to African American lawyers in this region. The new entity would also be designed to enhance the role and the impact of the African-American lawyer on issues of concern to the general African-American community in this geographical area.
After much discussion, it was decided that the time was right and that the effort was worth undertaking to try to bring Cleveland's Black legal community together under one umbrella. Strategically, it was decided that the leaders of all the Black law clubs should be approached about the idea, and with a prototype of what the new entity would look like. The idea was to attempt to get them to agree to jointly call a meeting of all of the area's African-American attorneys, where the idea of forming a Bar Association could be presented. "
A letter to Cleveland's African-American legal community was mailed to approximately 300 lawyers under the signatures of the presidents of the four African-American law groups, inviting them to a general meeting of the Black legal community to discuss the direction Cleveland's Black bar should take. Enclosed with the letter was a copy of a proposed constitution for a Black bar association.
The meeting was held on March 14, 1980, at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, with over 100 lawyers in attendance. At that meeting, the decision was made that a Black bar association should, and would be formed. Amendments were offered to the proposed constitution and a date set for the next meeting. At the next meeting, probably held sometime in June 1980, the members adopted the constitution and bylaws and elected NSMBA's first officers. The first officers were:
By July 1980, NSMBA was up and running and had issued its first newsletter. In accordance with its constitution, NSMBA seeks to advance the science of jurisprudence, promote legislation to improve the welfare of all citizens, protect the civil and political rights of the citizens of Cleveland, and enhance the image of Black Lawyers in Cleveland. NSMBA is recognized by the State of Ohio as a non-profit organization and is also a tax exempt professional organization under section 50l(c)(6) of the Internal Revenue Code, NSMBA seeks to serve the needs of Cleveland's large and diverse group of African American legal professionals. It is estimated that there are between 500 and 600 African American attorneys practicing in the Cleveland area. NSMBA maintains a mailing list containing the names of close to 500 African-American attorneys.
Members of NSMBA and its predecessor organizations have a long history of leadership in the National Bar Association (NBA) and may hold the distinction of being the affiliate chapter with the most members elected as NBA officers. Perry Brooks Jackson, president of the John Harlan Law Club, was president of the NBA's Committee on International Law in 1946. Judge Carl J. Character, also a former president of the John Harlan Law Club, served as president of the National Bar Association during the 1976-77 year. Finally, at least three of Cleveland's African-American lawyers have chaired the NBA's Judicial Council, namely, the late Judge Charles W. Fleming, the late Justice Lloyd O. Brown, and Judge Sara J. Harper, currently serving on the Ohio Court of Appeals for the Eighth District.
NSMBA operates through its committees, which include the Political and Judicial Selection Committee, the Legal Redress/ Outreach Committee, and the Judicial Committee. Since its founding, NSMBA has been active in a number of areas. It has regularly rated judicial candidates and publicized this information to the voting public. It has sponsored activities such as continuing legal education seminars, and law student receptions at the Federal Courthouse hosted by Chief Judge Solomon Oliver, Jr., of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.
NSMBA is proud of its members, which include such notables as Jean Murrell Capers, who in 1949 became the first African American woman to serve as a Cleveland City council person and who spearheaded the campaign to make the late Carl Stokes Cleveland's first Black mayor and the country's first Black elected mayor of a major American city; Judge Carl J. Character who served as the NBA's president during the 1976-77 year; James A. Draper who heads the Cuyahoga County Public Defender's office; Stephanie Tubbs Jones who lead the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's office and was later elected to represent Ohio's 11th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives; Chief Judge George W. White who in 1995 was sworn in as the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, making him one of five African American judges serving in that position; and Paul White who in 1970 became Cleveland's first African American to be made partner at a large majority law firm when he was made partner at Baker & Hostetler. These are just a few of NSMBA's members of achievement.
NSMBA looks forward to many more years of serving the needs of Greater Cleveland's African-American attorneys and the community-at-large.