Detroit Mercy Law hosts 'Bending the Arc Toward Justice'

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Black Law Students Association leadership and ABLA founder with the portrait of Henry H. Tarrant ’22, the first known African American graduate of Detroit Mercy Law (l-r): Cheryl Mitchell ’20, Jailah Emerson ’20, Deja Davis ’21, Nadine Dabaja ’21, and the Hon. Terrance A.

University of Detroit Mercy School of Law ushered in Black History Month on Thursday, January 30 by hosting “Bending the Arc Toward Justice,” an evening that acknowledged the school’s history, present, and future.

The program included a portrait unveiling of Henry H. Tarrant ’22, the first known African American graduate of Detroit Mercy Law; remarks by Godfrey J. Dillard, a civil rights trailblazer and one of the lawyers who represented the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) in its lawsuit against the university in the early 1980s; the launch of the new Henry H. Tarrant Award for Black Student Excellence; and an introduction to the Association of Black Law Alumni (ABLA), led by Judge Terrance A. Keith ’84, and ABLA’s new scholarship for African American students, the David Williams II and Gail Carr Williams Endowed Scholarship Fund.

This was an event to celebrate Tarrant, and, as Dean Phyllis L. Crocker explained, it was to “celebrate our history, acknowledge some of our mistakes, and be proud of where we are and where we are headed.”

Detroit Mercy Law opened its doors to students on October 1, 1912. Seven years later, Tarrant, a 27-year-old, World War I veteran, enrolled in classes and graduated in 1922. With the help of Patrick Meyer, associate professor of Law and director of the Detroit Mercy Law Kresge Law Library; Gene Moy, a former reference librarian at Detroit Mercy Law; Carrie Sharlow, administrative assistant in Government Relations at the State Bar of Michigan; and Margaret Leary, a former law library director at the University of Michigan, Detroit Mercy Law was able to identify Tarrant as the first known black graduate and shed some light into the history of his life.

Although little is known about Tarrant’s life apart from what has been found in law school and U.S. Census records and newspaper reports, “being the first African American graduate marked the beginning of new opportunities for others,” said Crocker. Tarrant led the way by working for social justice through two black lawyer associations—the Harlan Law Club (precursor to the Wolverine Bar Association) and the National Bar Association.

Cheryl Mitchell ’20, BLSA president at Detroit Mercy Law, introduced the new Henry H. Tarrant Award for Black Student Excellence. The award recognizes incoming black students for their achievements prior to law school and for their potential as future leaders who will advance justice, equality, civil rights, and service. In addition to financial assistance, award recipients will receive mentorship.

“Our goal as an organization is to ensure we are providing assistance to those in our community so that they may be complete lawyers,” said Mitchell.

BLSA leadership unveiled the Tarrant portrait. Mitchell was joined by Jailah Emerson, Nadine Dabaja, and Deja Davis. The portrait, painted by Richard Lewis and framed by Eric Vaughn, will be displayed on the first floor of Detroit Mercy Law.

Dillard reflected on the lawsuit BLSA filed against the university in the 1980s stating, “It gave the university the impetus to change...[and] helped them make up their minds it was never going to happen again.” The law school fully acknowledged the importance of the lawsuit at the event.

“It’s admitting that they made a mistake. This will provide hope for the future for all of those who will come here,” said Dillard.

“The history of Henry H. Tarrant, when you put it in the context of what Detroit was going through, [you can] see how significant his contribution was to black lawyers,” said Keith, one of the founders of ABLA at Detroit Mercy Law.

ABLA is a new affiliate of the Detroit Mercy Law Alumni Association. ABLA's mission is to augment the resources of the law school and the legal profession by actively recruiting and mentoring black law students through scholarships and career networking opportunities. ABLA also aims to facilitate communications between black law students, faculty, staff, and the administration, and to enrich the legal education experience for black law students. Keith noted that ABLA aims to “create a tapestry” telling the accomplishments of black graduates and to “make it possible for us to know our history” at the university.

Keith announced the formation of The David Williams II and Gail Carr Williams Endowed Scholarship Fund, which is to ensure future black law students are able to attend and thrive at Detroit Mercy Law.
“[W]e recognize what we didn’t have—financial support, academic support, and the support of lawyers in the community,” said  Keith. “This scholarship will change that for future generations of black law students.”

Contributions to The David Williams II and Gail Carr Williams Endowed Scholarship Fund can be made at https://community.udmercy.edu/donate/law.
 

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