Today’s guest columnist is J. Mason Davis.
I graduated from Talladega College, a small liberal arts college located in Talladega, Alabama, in June 1956.
Talladega College had been founded in 1867 as one of the first, if not the first, school for educating the former enslaved black man, though not limited to his or her race.
I wanted to become a lawyer to follow in the footsteps of my mother’s middle brother, Walter Wellington Harris, who had graduated from Ohio State University Law School in 1933.
Being a resident of the City of Birmingham, the nearest law school for me was located at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. However, I was prohibited from attending the law school because I was classified as a Negro, and the University of Alabama was supported by all taxpaying Alabamians exclusively for those who claimed to be Caucasian.
Therefore, I was required to apply to law schools outside of the State of Alabama, generally in the North, since the only law school in the State of Alabama was located in Tuscaloosa, except for Jones Law School, a private school in Montgomery, also exclusively for Caucasian.
I was accepted at Howard Law School, in Washington, D.C., and given a three-year scholarship. However, my mother decided that it would be better for me to go to the State University of New York, located in Buffalo, since our relatives lived in that city.
To attend law school outside of the state, a prospective student was required to either have sufficient monies on hand to pay the tuition and room and board out-of-pocket, or to borrow the money and, in effect, pledge a promise made by the Board of Education of the State of Alabama to reimburse Negro students who were fortunate enough to gain entrance to the out-of-state law school.
The law, that can be found today in the Code of Alabama, set forth that the State of Alabama would reimburse the student the difference between the cost of attendance at the University of Alabama as an in-state resident, and the cost of attending that law school located outside of the State of Alabama. They also would pay the same proportion of the room and board and a one-way first-class Coach ticket to the law school and a one-way ticket back home at the end of the school year. Nothing was said about transportation reimbursement for the semester break.
When I arrived in Buffalo in September of 1956, I went to the Marine Midland Bank, having just graduated from college, and having no knowledge of red-lining or a custom of restrictive loans to persons of the Negro group. I was fortunate in that I told the bankers that the State Board of Education would reimburse me for the difference in the cost of attendance at the State University of New York School of Law.
And, surprisingly, they made the loan, which I then took to the Registrar at the Law School and paid my first semester’s tuition. I submitted my request during the fall of 1956, and received reimbursement approximately two weeks into January of 1957, with which I used the funds to pay off my Note to the Marine Midland Bank.
The foregoing procedure was used by me for each semester until I entered my Senior year in law school.
During the last year of my attendance at law school I, following the same procedure, took the funds that I borrowed from the bank to the law school and paid for my first semester, expecting that the State Board of Education would fulfill their promise to reimburse me. (Note that, in order for me to attend the law school, I was required to borrow the funds from the bank, if fortunate enough to obtain the loan, and should the State of Alabama honor their promise, they would reimburse me at the end of the period for which the funds were borrowed and I would be reimbursed to use the funds to honor my loan.)
When January of 1959 came, I did not receive the funds from the State Board of Education. The bank, having not been paid, sent a letter to me requesting that I honor my obligation. Thereupon, I made a call to the State of Alabama’s Board of Education and inquired as to when they would reimburse me for my expenses.
I was told by a representative of the Board that the State was in proration and they did not have funds on hand to honor their promise. The next day I went to the bank and told them what the State Board of Education said. I requested an extension of time to see if the State Board of Education would make payment, whereupon I was advised that the funds had been loaned to me on the strength of my promise that the State Board of Education would honor their promise to me, and I would pay the bank back for the loan.
Having thought about the response of the bank and that of the Board of Education, I then made a second call to the Board of Education and asked them if they would give me an approximate time that the funds would be paid, whereupon I was told that the Board had no idea of when their funds would be available for them to honor their promise.
My reply to that representative was that I wanted to graduate on time in June of 1959, so that I could come back to the State of Alabama and study for the Bar Exam, which would be given in July of 1959. It is also to be noted that the graduates of the State University of Alabama School of Law were not required then to take the Bar Examination, but that upon graduating and receiving their diploma, the Supreme Court of the State of Alabama would issue their license to practice law. The graduates of the University of Alabama School of Law are licensed to practice law.
Whereupon, I replied to the representative that I had no choice but to go to Law School the next day and request assistance of my fellow students by them loaning to me sufficient funds to buy a train ticket to Birmingham, and then a bus ticket to Tuscaloosa, not having an automobile, and I would present myself to the Registrar at the State University of Alabama for admission to the Senior Graduating Class.
I received no reply from that representative, so I hung up the phone. Within two (2) days, I received from the Board of Education the full amount of my requested reimbursement, which relieved me to no end, for I was then able to go to the bank and pay off the money to the bank and discharge my obligation.
The State of Alabama was being so hypocritical by requiring me to attend an out-of-state school. The hope – in my opinion – was that I would become used to the freedoms granted by such northern school and I would be tempted to stay in that northern city and practice law there, not coming back to Alabama and becoming a licensed attorney capable to representing fellow Negroes who were attempting to have their rights granted to them by the State of Alabama by the judiciary, rather than being refused an education, as was done to other Negro residents of the State of Alabama.
What hypocrisy. What a denial of rights to the son of taxpaying citizens in the State of Alabama. All because of the color of my skin.
(This article is written to illustrate one of the great hypocrisies that existed in the State of Alabama in 1958-59, caused by legislation passed by the Alabama Legislature that was in conformity with the Constitution of 1901.)
J. Mason Davis has been practicing law for 60 years, 36 of which he has been a senior partner at Sirote. He has a long, distinguished career representing clients in business, antitrust, securities, and product liability litigation, as well as life, health, and surety company defense. His appellate practice includes matters before the Supreme Court of Alabama and the Fifth and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeals.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org