Opinion: The case for Edward Draper’s admission to the Maryland bar

19th century racial restrictions barred Draper and other African Americans from practicing law

Published 2/16/2023 6:00 a.m. EST, Updated 2/16/2023 10:13 a.m. EST

Edwin Grayson Draper, First Black College-Educated Lawyer for Liberia,

In 1857, a young Baltimore man applied for admission to the Maryland bar. Armed with a degree from Dartmouth and the highest recommendation of a local lawyer, he satisfied or exceeded all of the requirements for admission, as the judge examining him conceded. All, that is, but one: The applicant was not white.

On Feb. 16, the University of Baltimore School of Law is hosting a symposium that tells the story of that young Black man, Edward Garrison Draper, and the story of Maryland’s first Black lawyers who — nearly 30 years later — succeeded in overturning the state’s racially restrictive bar admission statute. Draper’s story is especially poignant because, at a time when standards for becoming a lawyer were notoriously lax, Draper was, if anything, overqualified.

In 1857, and for most of the 19th century, becoming a lawyer required being a Maryland resident, 21 or older, white and having “read the law” for two years under the tutelage of an experienced lawyer. With only a handful of law schools in America at the time, and with few candidates having even a bachelor’s degree, such apprenticeships were the primary source of most lawyers’ legal education. In Maryland, it was all that was needed to go before a local judge for an oral exam on one’s knowledge of the law and fitness to practice.

Draper, the son of a free Black tobacconist in Baltimore, had the benefit of a solid preparatory education before graduating from Dartmouth in 1855. He went on to spend two years “reading the law” under Baltimore attorney Charles Gilman, who sponsored Draper for admission to the bar. Hoping to gain firsthand knowledge of daily law practice, Draper also spent several months in the office of a prominent Boston attorney, Charles Storey.

Armed with all this, on October 29, 1857, Draper presented himself for examination before Baltimore Superior Court Judge Zachaeus Collins Lee, a slave owner and first cousin to Robert E. Lee. Lee was impressed by Draper, finding him to be “most intelligent,” “well-informed,” and “qualified in all respects to be admitted to the Bar in Maryland, if he was a free white citizen of this State.”

Draper told Judge Lee that he planned to emigrate to Liberia and set up a law practice there. The state of Maryland had for years encouraged such migration of free Black men and women, under the auspices of the Maryland Colonization Society. Reassured that Draper did not intend to try to integrate Maryland’s all-white bar, Judge Lee provided the young man with a certificate attesting to his qualifications. Draper then set sail from Baltimore to Liberia six days later. Tragically, Draper died within a year of his arrival in Liberia of tuberculosis, just shy of his 25th birthday.

But for the color of his skin, Edward Garrison Draper met all the requirements for admission to the Maryland bar — a fact acknowledged by Judge Lee. Maryland was the last of the former slaveholding states to admit Black lawyers, resisting until its racially restrictive statute was held unconstitutional in 1885. That year, a recent Howard Law graduate named Everett J. Waring became Maryland’s first admitted Black lawyer; five years later, Waring would become the first Black lawyer to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In recent years, as a way of righting the wrong of being denied admission on racial grounds, the highest courts in several states have granted posthumous bar admission to affected individuals from the 19th and early 20th centuries. It has happened six times since 2001, with the supreme courts in Washington and California admitting three Asian Americans who were wrongly denied the chance to become lawyers.

In 2010, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court posthumously admitted George Vachon, followed by New York’s 2019 admission of William Herbert Johnson — both Black Americans. In 2020, I led the successful effort that resulted in the Texas Supreme Court’s posthumous admission of J.H. Williams, a Black man denied admission in 1882.

Edward Garrison Draper is just as deserving of posthumous bar admission. I am proud to join with a coalition of Black lawyers, judges, bar associations and their leaders, Black Dartmouth alumni, and others in a petition to be filed with the Supreme Court of Maryland, asking it to grant Draper posthumous admission to the Maryland bar, which we believe he had earned in 1857.

Months after the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Dred Scott decision, called Black Americans “inferior” and not worthy of citizenship, the eminently qualified Edward Draper was deemed unworthy of entry to the legal profession solely on account of his race. It is time to address this injustice from our shameful past, and it is not merely a symbolic gesture.

As Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said last year when he posthumously pardoned Homer Plessy (of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case), “justice has no expiration date.”

John G. Browning is a partner at Spencer Fane, a former Texas appellate justice, and the distinguished jurist in residence at Faulkner University’s Thomas Goode Jones School of Law.

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