A look at Black History in the Third Circuit Court

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By Zenell Brown

A griot is a West African term for a member of a class of traveling poets, musicians, and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history. I have met several griots who have shared the nuggets of Third Circuit Court (the Court) history with me as I have passed through various roles and courtrooms over the past two decades. Many of the stories shared predate the annual reports issued by the Court and many have simply gone unrecorded. It has been my honor to listen to the stories and memorialize the history through the lens of diversity. Therefore, in recognition and celebration of Black History Month, I offer a series of articles as a glimpse into the African American History of the Third Circuit Court.

The Wayne County Circuit Court was created in 1835, while Michigan was a territory. That was 30 years before the abolishment of slavery in the United States of America. The bench was white and male. The election of Lila Neuenfelt broke the gender line in 1947, but it would almost be a decade later before race barrier would be crossed.

The roots of African American history in the Third Circuit Court starts with the appointment of Wade McCree to the bench by Gov. G. Mennen Williams. Judge McCree served on that bench from 1954 to 1961.

Judge Wade McCree was born on July 3, 1920, in Des Moines, Iowa. McCree was a graduate of Fisk University, a historical Black college in Tennessee. He was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa society and graduated summa cum laude. McCree worked his way through college as a butler. He also became the first African-American pharmacist and pharmacy owner in Iowa. Serving a four-year stint as a captain in the United States Army during World War II, McCree entered Harvard Law School and graduated 12th in his class in 1948 with a Bachelor of Law.

When McCree and his wife and family moved to Detroit, McCree practiced law at the Black law firm of Bledsoe & Taylor from 1948 to 1952. Prior to his judicial appointment, McCree was appointed to the Workman’s Compensation Commission by Michigan Gov. G. Mennen Williams. McCree would go on to be the first African American on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan nominated by President John F. Kennedy and then on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Judge McCree resigned from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on March 28, 1977 when President Jimmy Carter appointed him United States Solicitor General.

McCree combated the issue of racism in the community as well. When his daughter was refused admission to an all-girls school in Detroit because she was Black, McCree founded the interracial Friends School in 1965.
McCree died August 30, 1987. At McCree’s memorial service, President Jimmy Carter acknowledged the Third Circuit Court’s first African American judge was “a true American hero.”

Common Pleas Judge Charles S. Farmer was elected to fill a seat created by the legislature in 1965. Judge Farmer served on the Bench for 25 years. Charles S. Farmer was born in 1920, and graduated from Tennessee State University. He moved to Detroit and waited tables to put himself through the University of Detroit Law School. He served as a Wayne County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, State of Michigan Assistant Attorney General, and then entered private practice. In 1961, he was appointed as a judge of the Detroit Common Pleas Court. In 1965, he was elected to the Wayne County Circuit Court, where he spent more than 25 years.

On the bench, Farmer pursued court rule modifications and criminal sentencing guideline reform through the State Bar of Michigan and the Institute of Continuing Legal Education. Farmer served as a professor and lecturer. In his role with the U.S. Department of State assignments, he lectured on American laws to judges, attorneys, and students in emerging African countries. Farmer was a visiting professor at the Cooley Law School in Lansing. He became a board member of an organization addressing sickle cell disease. After retiring, Farmer became of counsel to the Sommers Schwartz law firm. Farmer died in 2015.

The current struggles Black women lawyers face on account of race and sex is not new as evidenced by the life story of the first elected African American female judge, the Hon. Lucile Watts. Watts was a 1962 graduate of the Detroit College of Law. During this time, women did not attend the law school and women were not hired by law firms to practice law. Women hires were relegated to secretary roles. There was only one other woman enrolled in the day program when Watts began, and not surprisingly, that woman did not finish the program.

In a 2017 Detroit Free Press interview, Judge Watts reflected, “I’m a Black woman — one of the first to do a lot of things, and I had the guts and the backing because I had a husband who supported me.” When Watts finished law school, she started her own law firm. During the Detroit 1967 riots, she acknowledged her responsibility to become involved and she took on the role of defense counsel for the Black men who were wrongfully taken into custody. In 1978, Watts successfully ran for the Common Pleas Court with the campaign promise of “Equal Justice Under the Law.” In 1980, she successfully campaigned and was elected judge to the Third Circuit Court becoming the first Black female judge to join that bench and the first African American female to be elected to the circuit court judgeship in Michigan.

Judge Watts would become a founding member of the Association of Black Judges of Michigan. Her civic and community involvement included serving on the boards of Focus: HOPE, Woodward Academy in Detroit - Board Member, and National Council of Negro Women. As for judicial acumen, Watts became a teacher of judges joining the faculty of the National Judicial College. Judge Watts was inducted posthumously into the Michigan Women Hall of Fame based on a nomination prepared by the Third Circuit Court’s Historical Committee, supported by Judge Milton Mack and Judge Cynthia Stephens. (See video at https://youtu.be/13Oh6ZKkVpM.) Watts’ life represents the culmination of a career of dedicated service and accomplishment as a woman, person of color, lawyer, and person of social conscience.

In 1983, Claudia House Shropshire Morcom became the first Black female appointed to Wayne County Circuit Court. Judge Claudia House Morcom was described as “a model of courage, a pioneer for Black women in the law, and a champion for human rights around the world,” by the Detroit Free Press, August 2014 on her death and tribute to her legacy. She was a 1956 graduate of Wayne State law, entering a field where the presence of women and people of color was negligible. She joined the Detroit Housing Commission as a public housing aid and went on to join the first integrated law firm of Goodman, Crocket, Eden, Robb and Philo. Morcom traveled to the South during “Freedom Summer.” Morcom sojourned south with Anna Diggs and helped facilitate massive voter registration. Anna Diggs Taylor, a 1957 Yale Law School graduate, would later beco me the first Black woman judge to be appointed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in 1979 and had a positive impact on Third Circuit judges and their careers.

Morcom became the founding director and program administrator of Wayne County Neighborhood Legal Services in 1965. Morcom served as an Administrative Law Judge for the State of Michigan’s Worker’s Compensation Court. In 1983, she was appointed to the Third Circuit Court and served until her retirement in 1998. In 1996, Judge Morcom was inducted in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Morcom died in 2014 and is buried in the Historic Elmwood Cemetery, Section 1, Lot 57.

“The Negro Renaissance in Michigan Politics,” the Detroit Riots, and the civil rights movement were the historical backdrops of the first and early appointments and elections of the African American judges to the Third Circuit Court. Thus, they were not strangers to the struggles of racism, classism, and gender inequities. They made headlines as “firsts” challenging who society saw as judges. The Wikipedia biography of McCree recounts when a lawyer argued that McCree could not impartially decide a case involving a black and a white litigant, McCree replied: “The ultimate of arrogance is achieved when a white person thinks another white person can make a judgment without being influenced by race and a black person cannot.”

The African American Judicial forefathers and foremothers were pillars of their communities and role models for future generations of black lawyers. They earned the respect of judicial colleagues and many heads of states – white and Black.

Let it be recorded in the annals of the Third Circuit Court, they are the strong roots, the essence, the legacy, the ancestors and progenitors from which the African American History of the Third Circuit Court sprang.

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Resources:

Anna Diggs Taylor. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2021, from Historic Elmwood Cemetery and Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2021, from https://www.elmwoodhistoriccemetery.org/biographies/the-honorable-claudia-clementine-house-shropshire-morcom/

The Association of Black Judges A Historical Perspective. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2021, from https://abjmonline.com/about-us/

Crump-Gibson, J. (2018). A tribute to Firsts: Black Female Lawyers in Michigan. Michigan Bar Journal, 28-29.

Hicks, M. (2018, March 18). Longtime Detroit Judge’s Knowledge, Manner ‘Extraordinary’. Retrieved January 21, 2021, from https://www.detroitnews.com/story/obituaries/2015/03/18/detroit-judge-farmer-obituary/24994313/

Historic Elmwood Cemetery and Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2021, from https://www.elmwoodhistoriccemetery.org/biographies/the-honorable-claudia-clementine-house-shropshire-morcom/

McCree, W. (n.d.). THE NEGRO RENAISSANCE IN MICHIGAN POLITICS. Negro History Bulletin, 26(1), 7-13. Retrieved January 15, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44176102



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