Floyd Skinner Bar honors long tradition with scholarship award

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At the center above is Shawn Anthony Abdul, the winner of the Floyd Skinner Bar 2012 scholarship. Surrounding him, left to right, are Floyd Skinner Bar member attorneys, most of whom served on the event committee for the scholarship reception: Tawanna D. Wright; Christina Mims, a solo practitioner; Anita Hitchcock, Assistant City Attorney, who is also Vice President; Roosevelt Thomas, now at Warner Norcross and Judd; Hon. Benjamin Logan of the 61st District Court, President; and Michael Adams, Law Office of Michael David Adams. Also on the committee but not pictured were Angel Dotson and Adam Sturdivant.

LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

It is a little-remembered, and now almost unimaginable, fact in the history of the legal profession that the American Bar Association (ABA) did not allow African-Americans to be members until at least 1943.

Though the ABA admitted William Henry Lewis and two others in 1911, it was because the state nominating them for inclusion did not identify them as African-American. Lewis, then an Assistant U.S. Attorney General, refused to resign despite statements that allowing in African-Americans would “diminish the profession.”

In response to that discrimination, twelve African-American lawyers started an alternative, the National Bar Association (NBA).

The founding lawyers, who included one female, founded the NBA in Des Moines Iowa in 1925. (The ABA was founded in 1878.) It was originally called the Negro Bar Association and later renamed.

Black lawyers’ numbers were small — at the time, there were fewer than 1,000  in the nation — but many shared a “dedication to justice and the civil rights of all” with the NBA founders.

Floyd Skinner joined the ranks of African-American lawyers the following year, after graduating from the University of Michigan. When he was in law school, Skinner had assisted an African-American individual named Oliver Green in his suit against a theater that refused to seat him. Skinner settled in Grand Rapids and made history here, founding the Progressive Voter’s League in the 1930s and serving for five terms as president of the local chapter of the NAACP. (Grand Rapids Community College’s Woodrick Center Giant Awards include a Floyd Skinner Justice Award, which this year went to Kenyatta Brame.)

There is a connection between the founder of the Floyd Skinner Bar Association (FSBA), Benjamin H. Logan — now district court judge —and Mr. Skinner himself, in the person of attorney Alphonse Lewis, Jr. Lewis, who died in 2009, joined Floyd Skinner in his practice in 1947, as one of only two black attorneys practicing in the Grand Rapids area.

Later, Lewis and Logan, along with other attorneys, created the Outstate Bar Association. That association continued until separate specialty bars composed of African-Americans started to spring up in individual cities, a trend which saw the founding of the Floyd Skinner Bar.

Others include the Lansing Black Lawyers Association and the D. Augustus Straker Bar in Detroit.

The FSBA has distinguished itself in many ways. One of them is its partnership with the Grand Rapids Bar Association on the minority clerkships program. Another is its two-decades-old tradition of giving scholarships to third-year minority students.

And so, last week a lively and engaged crowd of FSBA members, friends and associates gathered to honor young Shawn Abdul, the 2012 scholarship winner.

Abdul is originally from New Orleans — though he pronounces it as the natives do, “Nawlins.” He went to John McDonough High School there and then Louisiana State University, originally intending to be a veterinarian. At a certain point in Animal Pre-Science, he realized it was not for him.

The animal world’s loss eventually became the legal profession’s gain, as Abdul worked various jobs during a period of uncertainty about returning to school. While at a job in a maximum security juvenile prison, Abdul says, his attitudes changed. “I was forced to rethink my idea that people chose not to do right and saw that some people needed a bit more help than others to stay on track.  And that youth who make mistakes shouldn't be tossed aside and given up on,” he says.

He also worked for the Social Security Administration as a Disability Determinations Analyst, which exposed him to evidence-gathering and interpretation. He says the combination of the two were “like an epiphany almost, and I knew law was the career for me.”

He attends Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Lansing Campus, and says he has not decided whether he will pursue juvenile law or elder law, remembering back to the two positions that shaped his career decision.

He says he is grateful to Cooley for “taking chances on those who would not be typically accepted into law school. Also,” he adds, “I love Cooley’s focus on practical education. I think it makes for better lawyers.”

Will he go back to New Orleans or stay here in Michigan? He is not sure yet, but was “overwhelmed  by the [Floyd Skinner Bar’s] generosity and hospitality,” and said he aspires to become part of such a legal community. He adds that receiving the award was a boost to his self-esteem an determination, as well as helpful in a practical sense because he pays out-of-pocket for his schooling. “It was an incredible blessing for which I’m extremely grateful,” he says.

People attending the reception reciprocated his admiration, and raved about his speaking skills and impressive presence. Judge Logan says the group was enormously pleased to find such a worthy recipient.

And Abdul adds, “It was an amazing night.”