Benton '70, Retired Judge Who Helped Give Legal Voice to Others, Discusses His Black History Hero
For almost every person who achieves success in a field, someone had inspired him or her along the way. For James W. Benton Jr., retired Virginia Court of Appeals judge and a 1970 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, that person was a public school educator who challenged pay disparity for black teachers.
Benton returned to UVA Law on Friday to speak to students in Professor Anne Coughlin's Law and Public Service class about his career path to becoming a judge, as well as the legal history of segregation in Virginia, which he experienced firsthand.
In the process, he recalled how his path was influenced by his personal hero, Aline Black Hicks, who taught him chemistry at Booker T. Washington High in Norfolk, Virginia.
Benton was the only black person appointed to the appeals court when it was created in 1985, and remained the lone African-American until his retirement in 2007. The new court gave voice to appeals from Virginia's circuit courts and Workers' Compensation Commission that previously would not have been heard unless granted consideration by the Supreme Court of Virginia, which was rare.
"We got the real cases," he said. "We got people cases."
Benton's path to the bench led back to Hicks in several ways, he said.
At UVA Law, Benton was one of only two black students in his class, and one of only five black students among a body of about 700 law students total. As the smaller group talked to each other, they realized they had something else in common besides race.
"Interestingly enough, of the five black students in the Law School, four of us went to the same high school," Benton said. "And all of us had chemistry from Aline Hicks. She really was the inspiration for a lot of what happened to us."
Hicks wasn't just a good teacher who encouraged higher education; she was also involved in an important court case. For many years in Virginia, black teachers were paid approximately half the pay of white teachers. In 1939, Hicks [née Black, until married sometime in the 1940s] allowed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to file suit on her behalf against the Norfolk School Board because of the pay disparity. But when Hicks' contract was up, the school board fired her. The court then dismissed her suit, finding she no longer had legal standing because she was no longer an employee.
But another teacher stepped in to take her place in the lawsuit. Hicks was eventually reinstated in the school system, and pay equity, in time, prevailed.
Even with law as a backdrop to Hicks' courageous stand, Benton didn't consider law as a career at first. Black people where he lived didn't become lawyers, so he didn't have any legal role models.
"If you had a good job in my community, you were either a teacher or you worked for the post office," he said.
Thinking he too would teach, Benton attended Temple University as an undergraduate chemistry major with a minor in mathematics. But he soon got involved in the anti-war movement and participated in activities through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
"When I left Philadelphia, I left with the idea that I was reconsidering my career options," he said.
Benton hadn't attended college in the South, in part, to avoid having racial tensions distract him from his school work. But once law school was in his sights, Benton said he applied to UVA Law and other state schools because they were more affordable. He got accepted to UVA.
While there were still racial tensions at UVA at the time, Benton said there were allies on the law faculty, such as Charles Whitebread, who checked in with black students frequently. Benton said he also had enormous respect for Professor A. E. Dick Howard and Professor Emeritus Peter Low, both of whom were young faculty members at the time.
Before Benton graduated from the Law School, his connection to Hicks would come up again. Hicks' firing two decades earlier had drawn the attention of NAACP-affiliated attorneys Thurgood Marshall, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice, and Oliver Hill, a well-known civil rights lawyer. While Benton was in law school, Hill spoke to students about Brown vs. Board of Education and other cases. In the 1950s and '60s there were more civil rights cases filed in Virginia than in any other state, Benton said, and leading the way was Hill's law firm, Hill, Tucker & Marsh. (Hill is now remembered by the Virginia State Bar through the annual Oliver W. Hill Law Student Pro Bono Award, which has been awarded to Angela Ciolfi '03, Ryan Almstead '06 and Salima Burke '12.)
"After the talk, I went up and introduced myself to Oliver Hill and said I was a student of Aline Hicks, a theme that keeps running through [my life]," Benton said. "Hicks is always in my consciousness."
Hill was interested in hiring Benton, even after he learned Benton had been hired by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Hill ultimately arranged for Benton to be a part-time employee of the Defense Fund and a part-time employee of Hill's law firm. Stationed in Richmond, Benton tried school desegregation cases all across the state, including the prolonged Norfolk schools case that was filed in 1958, and other civil rights and civil liberties cases.
Because of his work, when the Virginia General Assembly decided to make appeals a matter of right, then-Sen. Douglas Wilder (later Virginia governor) nominated Benton for one of the judgeships on the new court.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.