Black History Month: Alumni Who Blazed Trails for Others

Alumni collage

Illustration by Warren Craghead

February 2, 2022

Several alumni of the University of Virginia School of Law have helped open doors to generations of Black lawyers at the school and beyond. In honor of Black History Month, here are some of their stories.

Gregory Swanson
Gregory H. Swanson

Gregory H. Swanson ’51 became the University and Law School’s first Black student after he challenged the University’s segregation of students in court in order to pursue a master's in law. The Law School’s Gregory H. Swanson Award debuted in 2018 to recognize students who demonstrate courage, perseverance and a commitment to justice within the community.

John Merchant
John Merchant

During his service to the U.S. Golf Association, John Merchant ’58, UVA Law’s first Black J.D. graduate, created development opportunities for aspiring minority golfers in the traditionally all-white sport. He also separately represented a young Tiger Woods as he transitioned from amateur to professional status.

Isaac C. Hunt Jr. ’62, the Law School’s second Black graduate, served on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and was dean of two law schools.

Elaine Jones
Elaine Jones

Elaine Jones ’70, UVA Law’s first Black alumna, was the first woman to serve as director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Jones has received 16 honorary doctorates and numerous awards for her work, including UVA’s Distinguished Alumna Award and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law, given jointly by the University and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Linda Howard
Linda Gordon Howard

Linda Gordon Howard ’73 was the first Black student and the first female student to become the Law School’s student council president. After establishing her career in public service and academia, she went on to write a book about sexual harassment law that was published in 2007.

In 1970, Black law students at UVA Law organized the Black American Law Students Association chapter — and pushed for the first Black law professor at UVA. Founding members Margaret Poles Spencer ’72 and Bobby Vassar ’72 shared their story upon the organization’s 50th anniversary. (Also catch up with 50 years of photos from BLSA history.)

Judge Raymond Jackson ’73 was the first African American federal judge to serve in South Hampton Roads. His wife, Judge Gwendolyn Jones Jackson ’72, served on the Norfolk General District Court and was the second woman appointed to that bench. They shared their judicial philosophy with UVA Lawyer in 2018.

Mildred Robinson
Mildred Robinson

Professor Emerita Mildred Robinson, a groundbreaking tax law instructor whose scholarship and community service have emphasized equity, was UVA Law’s first Black female tenured professor. She reflected on her 47-year teaching career upon her retirement in 2019.

Retired Judge James W. Benton Jr. ’70 was the only Black person appointed to the Virginia Court of Appeals when it was created in 1985, and remained the lone African American until his retirement in 2007.

John Charles Thomas ’75 was the first Black justice to serve on the Supreme Court of Virginia. Now retired from the bench, he has since returned to UVA Law to teach appellate practice. Justice Cleo E. Powell ’82 was the first Black woman appointed to the state Supreme Court. In January, S. Bernard Goodwyn ’86 was named the second Black chief justice in the court’s history.

Alfonso Carney Jr.
Alfonso Carney Jr.

Alfonso Carney Jr. ’74 found that his successful career as a business executive blossomed with help from a mentor. He now takes care to pass his good fortune forward.

Ted Small ’92 founded the student organization Students United to Promote Racial Awareness to help bridge the color divide among students at the Law School. (UVA President Jim Ryan ’92, then a student, was a member.)

Phipps family
Errol, Sara and Kim Phipps

Class of 1991 alums Errol and Kim Phipps, and their daughters, Sara ’20 and Sydney ’22, became the first multigenerational Black family with both parents to have attended UVA Law. Sara Phipps also checked in with us at her graduation in 2020.

Blake D. Morant ’78 was the first Black person to serve as dean at George Washington University Law School, and former UVA Law professor Dayna Bowen Matthew ’87 was the first woman and the second Black person to serve as dean there.

Kim Keenan ’87, this year’s graduation speaker, was the youngest person and second woman to serve as general counsel of the NAACP.

Eric C. Taylor ’88 has helped transform court operations during the pandemic as presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, the nation’s largest unified trial 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.

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