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Redding, Louis L.(1901–1998) - Lawyer, Graduates from Brown University, Fulfills Dream to Achieve His Law Degree, Chronology, Becomes Desegregation Lawyer

black delaware school education

The first African American lawyer in Delaware, Louis L. Redding seized the opportunity to change the legal principles that embraced racial segregation in his state and beyond. Through his efforts, in 1950 the University of Delaware broke down its racial barriers and admitted black students. Two years later he was successful in desegregating the public schools of Delaware. The case had national significance; it became a part of Brown v. Board of Education which in 1954 resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s declaration that the separate-but-equal doctrine was unconstitutional. Redding also fought for passage of open legislation in Delaware. Redding spent his life fighting for the rights of African Americans, particularly in Delaware.

The oldest of Lewis Alfred and Mary Ann Holmes Redding’s five children, Louis Lorenzo Redding was born on October 25, 1901, at the Holmes family homestead in Alexandria, Virginia. Both parents studied at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Mary Redding stayed for only two semesters and although she never graduated, she was an intellect who loved books and reading. Lewis Alfred Redding interrupted his education due to family and financial pressures, taught school in Maryland for a while, and returned to school and graduated from the Normal Department, or teacher’s school, in 1897, when he was nearly thirty years old. The Reddings met while at Howard. Their backgrounds were vastly different, however: he was the son of a former slave while she was from the mulatto elite, free black artisans. The Holmes family disapproved of Lewis and the couple’s interest in marriage.

After their marriage in 1900, the Reddings moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where Lewis set up a small grocery store that lasted only three years. They moved from one dilapidated neighborhood to another. Before the store closed, however, Lewis had landed a job as a postal worker, becoming one of four black postmen. The job carried prestige in the black community and brought him instant respectability. He took part-time jobs as well, and a few years later the family moved to a neighborhood of middle-class blacks.

The Reddings had seven children, although two died in infancy: the surviving children were Louis Lorenzo, Cora Gwendolyn, James Saunders, Lillian Mae Holmes, and Jennetta Mayson. They grew up with middle-class values and were known for their elegance and refinement, and according to the family biographer Annette Woolard-Provine, they were recognized as “the scholarly family of black Wilmington.” Throughout their lives, they spoke English with precision and elegance, absent any trace of regional dialect. They were home-tutored for the first few grades and attended summer classes when they were very young. A college education for all of the Reddings was a given. One of the children, James “Jay” Saunders Redding, also known as Saunders Redding, became a highly recognized college professor who wrote and published works about the black experience.

Graduates from Brown University

Louis Redding studied at Wilmington’s racially segregated Howard High School, where Edwina Kruse, a well-known black principal, was a dominating force. English teacher and Harlem Renaissance writer Alice Dunbar-Nelson, who brought prestige to the school, helped to lure Wilmington’s best and brightest to Howard. Louis Redding continued to cross paths with Dunbar-Nelson through their work with the NAACP. During the Kruse era, Howard endured the racial caste system, where light-skinned students were traditionally favored and privileged while dark-skinned blacks were generally in disfavor. The Reddings, however, though dark-skinned, were Wilmington’s privileged and received encouragement at the school. Redding became the school’s first graduate accepted to Brown University and his sister Gwendolyn the first to enroll in Pembroke, a women’s affiliate of Brown.

Redding enjoyed the Ivy League tradition at Brown, breathed in the intellectual and urban sophistication of the campus, and developed a taste for fine clothes. In 1921, Redding and seven other black men established a chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity in Providence. At that time such fraternities provided a much-needed social life for blacks. On entering Brown, Louis Redding planned to become a doctor, due in part to his father’s wishes for his son to live well and be shielded from racism. But Louis recognized early on his dislike for biology and was attracted by the lifestyles of several black lawyers in Providence and Boston. Thus, he decided to become a lawyer.

Fulfills Dream to Achieve His Law Degree

After graduating from Brown in 1923, however, Redding had to find employment because his family was unable to pay for a law school education. He moved to Ocala, Florida, where for one year, from 1923 to 1924, he was assistant principal in the racially segregated Fessenden Academy, one of the black schools supported by the American Missionary Association. Much later he told his brother Saunders that he had been disturbed by the aftermath of a race lynching that occurred while he was in Florida, an experience that he refused to discuss with others but one that obviously had an impact on the professional life that he was to lead. In 1924 and 1925 he taught English at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Atlanta was more protest-oriented than Ocala. Redding became seriously concerned about racial protest while there.

By now, Redding decided it was time to pursue a legal career. He knew that his choices were limited because white law schools accepted a token number of blacks and Howard University in Washington, D.C., where Charles Hamilton Houston was dean, was the only black school that provided quality legal education. He took a temporary post with the Chicago postal service and investigated the law school at the University of Chicago where blacks had been well accepted. Instead, he enrolled in the law school at Harvard University and graduated in 1928, the only black in a class of 250 and the second black to earn a J.D. from the program. While at Harvard he met the young Benjamin Davis, later a well-known Communist activist.

Redding hoped to become a big-city New England lawyer, but he yielded to his father’s wishes for him to return to Wilmington and work for racial justice within the state. He returned to Wilmington in 1928. There he served a clerkship—in name only—with municipal court judge and later U.S. senator Daniel O. Hastings, who kept secret his sponsorship of the young black attorney. All law candidates for the state bar were required to serve a clerkship. Redding discussed with his friend and former teacher Alice Dunbar-Nelson his misgivings about Hastings and his belief that the man was corrupt. He completed his clerkship in February 1929, passed the state bar that year, and became the first black lawyer in Delaware. He was the state’s only black lawyer for twenty-six years.

Louis Redding took aim at segregation in Wilmington’s courtrooms, where whites and blacks sat on opposite sides. While at home visiting from law school, in 1926 he was ejected from the municipal court because he sat on the gallery’s “white side.” Now as a lawyer, he challenged the practice, asserting that he could find no law mandating it and there was no code supporting the tradition. The practice was discontinued. As a lawyer, however, he was professionally lonely. Mediocre white lawyers displayed contempt for his competence; generally, white lawyers were cool toward him; and in the courtroom some judges refused to make eye contact with him. His practice was small and provided little distinction among the large, corporate firms. Still he persevered and as clients found their way to him during the Great Depression and as he remained determined to take on controversial clients, his practice grew. He traveled the state to attract clients and practiced in three counties.

Chronology

1901

Born in Alexandria, Virginia on October 25

1923 Receives A.B. degree from Brown University

1923–24 Becomes vice principal of Fessenden Academy, Ocala, Florida

1924–25 Teaches at Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia

1928 Receives J.D. degree from Harvard Law School

1929 Becomes first black admitted to the Delaware bar; begins law practice

1944 Marries Ruth Albert Cook

1950 Wins lawsuit forcing University of Delaware to accept black students

1954 Joins other lawyers and NAACP, successfully arguing Brown v. Board of Education before U.S. Supreme Court

1965 Becomes public defender, State of Delaware

1972 Marries Gwendolyn Carmen Kiah

1973 Receives honorary LLD degree from Brown University

1984 Retires after practicing law for 55 years

1989 Receives NEA’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award

1998 Dies in Lima, Pennsylvania on September 29

2000 University of Delaware establishes professorship in his name

Becomes Desegregation Lawyer

Louis Redding became best known for his work as a desegregation lawyer. In 1950, black students in Delaware’s segregated college system became restive about the conditions in the black, unaccredited Delaware State College where they studied. Over thirty students applied for admission to the University of Delaware and were rejected, and nine of these students sought relief in the courts. Redding and Jack Greenberg, lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, took the case. In Parker v. University of Delaware , the Court of Chancery of Delaware on August 9, 1950, held for the plaintiffs and other similarly situated. Thus, the University of Delaware became the first public university, by court order, to admit black students. This victory became part of the monumental Brown v. Board of Education .

Redding argued successfully again in 1952 in behalf of eight black students who had been prevented from enrolling in the white public schools in Delaware. This was the nation’s first case of court-ordered desegregation of public schools. The state appealed the victory. In Brown v. Board of Education the Supreme Court ruled against the separate-but-equal doctrine relating to public schools, desegregating them. Afterward, Redding practically stood alone among Delaware’s power system in the general assembly, education, and elsewhere. As result of his desegregation work, he received threats against his life, hate mail, and frightening telephone calls, yet he continued his fight against racism.

Professional Memberships and Awards

Redding became public defender for the state of Delaware in 1965 and continued his support of poor clients. He held this post for twenty years until he retired in 1985. During his professional life he joined the National Bar Association, the National Lawyers Guild, the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (sometimes called a left-wing organization), and NAACP. He became president of the Delaware Bar Association—the same organization that excluded him from membership early on. For most of his career he was legal counsel for the Wilmington NAACP.

Late in life Redding was highly publicized in the local media and sought out for interviews and speaking engagements. He received a number of recognitions after his death. The University of Delaware—the school that he legally forced to accept black students in 1950—honored him in 2000 by establishing the highly honored Louis L. Redding Chair in the School of Education. Redding Middle School in Middletown, Delaware, was named in his honor.

Redding had faith in the legal system; he firmly believed that grievances could be resolved through the system. At times his task was lonely, especially in his efforts to desegregate public accommodations in Delaware and in his maneuvers to establish an open housing law. He found relief in 1968 when the federal housing bill was passed and in 1969 when Delaware outlawed race-restricted housing sales and rent covenants. Although he worked primarily through legal protest and felt most comfortable when he did, at times Redding worked outside the system. He helped to devise a number of boycotts and sit-in strategies but seldom attended the events. To increase economic opportunities for blacks, he worked privately with local businessmen and political leaders. He participated in the March on Washington in 1963 and met with national civil rights leaders. He was discomforted by the grass-roots activism of the late 1960s, especially the work of Black Nationalism and its sometimes violent overtones. All protest, he thought, should be united, and he believed what he saw as competition between various civil rights groups would discourage mainstream empathy. Soon younger members of protest groups thought Redding was out-of-step with the times. Ultimately, however, civil rights efforts became mainstream, and he began to enjoy the positive attention that he attracted through his work.

Redding married Ruth Cook in 1944 and they had three daughters: Ann Holmes, Rupa Cook, and Judith Boardman. After he and his first wife divorced in the early 1970s, he married Gwendolyn Carmen Kiah in 1972. She died in June 1998. Redding experienced health problems as early as the mid-1980s, including the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. He died on September 29, 1998, in a hospital in Lima, Pennsylvania, near his home in Glen Mills at the age of ninety-six. He is remembered as one who figured prominently in the struggle for desegregation in Delaware and as a lawyer who never lost a desegregation case.

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