HBCU Legends

Supreme Court Justices

The President is poised to announce his selection to fill the vacancy left by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.   He is following in the footsteps of the previous five presidents, who all appointed the current members of the country's highest court.  HBCU experts and historians alike can all name the first African-American to serve as a Supreme Court Justice- The Lincoln University and Howard University School of Law alum, Thurgood Marshall, who was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 and served until he retired in 1991.   For more than 150 years numerous other HBCU alum have served as Supreme Court Justices- though Marshall is the only to have served on the US Supreme Court.  This HBCU Legends feature will highlight some of them.  


Ernest Finney

Claflin University, South Carolina State School of Law- South Carolina Supreme Court

Ernest Finney began his professional career as a teacher before establishing a law practice in Sumter, South Carolina.  He was the attorney for the 'Friendship 9,' a group of students from Rock Hill, South Carolina's now closed Friendship Junior College who were arrested & jailed for staging a sit-in.  Finney was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1972, and became one of the founders of the Legislative Black Caucus.  He became the state's first African-American Circuit Court judge in 1976. Nine years later Judge Finney became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice appointed to the South Carolina Supreme Court since Reconstruction and in May 1994 he became Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. Finney held that position until he retired from the bench in March 2000. 

Charles E. Freeman

Virginia Union University- Illinois Supreme Court

After graduating from law school in Chicago, Charles Freeman developed his own private practice where his long time law partner was Harold Washington, who would later become mayor of Chicago. Freeman subsequently became an arbiter with the Illinois Industrial Commission and then served on the Illinois Commerce Commission. Freeman continued to climb the ranks in the judicial system becoming a judge for the Cook County Circuit Court in 1976 and a decade later, an Illinois appellate court judge.  In 1990, Freeman was elected as the first African-American justice to the Illinois Supreme Court, representing the first district of Illinois. On May 12, 1997, he was selected as Chief Justice and served in that capacity until January 1, 2000. He continues to serve on the court as its senior member.   

Geraldine Hines

Tougaloo College- Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

Geraldine Hines was a civil rights attorney and a founding partner in the first law firm of women of color in New England. In 2001 she became an associate justice of the Superior Court of Massachusetts, where she served until appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court.  Judge Hines took her place on the Court and her place in history in 2014.  She was nominated by Governor Deval Patrick to fill an associate justice seat that was left vacant by Associate Justice Ralph Gants, who became chief justice. The Tougaloo alum became the first African-American woman to sit on the state‚Äôs highest court. 

Bernette Johnson

Spelman College- Louisiana Supreme Court

After completing her bachlor's degree at Spelman in 1964 Bernette Johson attended law school at Louisiana State where she was one of the first African-American women enrolled.  Her judicial career began in 1984 when she was the first woman elected to serve on the Civil District Court of New Orleans. Ten years later she was elected Chief Judge. That same year Johnson was elected to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court,  In 2013, as the senior justice on the Court, she became 25th Chief Justice the 2nd woman and the first African-American Chief Justice.

Revius Ortique

Dillard University, Southern University Law Center- Louisiana Supreme Court

Dillard grad Revius Ortique, Jr. was a a civil-rights lawyer who became the first African-American justice elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court.  A World War II veteran, Ortique earned his law degree from the Southern University Law Center.  As a civil rights attorney he fought for equal pay for black employees and the desegregation of public facilities. Ortique was president of the Greater New Orleans Urban League and the National Bar Association. As the leader of the NBA he lobbied President Johnson to appoint more African-Americans to the federal bench.  In 1978 Ortique was appointed to the Civil District  bench and began his journey to the state Supreme Court, which culminated in his election in 1992.  

James E. C. Perry

St. Augustine's University- Florida Supreme Court

James E. C. Perry retired from the Florida Supreme Court on December 30, 2016.  The St. Augustine's alum was appointed as the 85th Justice to the Court and began serving in 2009. Previously, he served as a Circuit judge of Florida's Eighteenth Judicial Circuit becoming, in 2000, the first African-American to receive such an appointment. Justice Perry later served as Chief Judge of the Circuit for a two-year term beginning July 2003.  Outside of the courtroom, Perry was founder and president of the Jackie Robinson Sports Association, a baseball league serving 650 at-risk boys and girls.     

Peggy Quince

Howard University- Florida Supreme Court

Peggy Quince earned a degree in Zoology from Howard before going to law school.  She began practicing law in Washington, DC before establishing a private practice in her home town of Norfolk and then in Florida.  Quince worked for the attorney general of Florida for more than 13 years.  In 1993 the governor appointed her to the Second District Court of Appeals, making her the first African-American woman to receive such an appointment.  In December 1998, Justice Quince was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court becoming the third woman and first African-American woman on the court. Ten years later she became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Florida for two years, the first African-American woman to head any branch of Florida government. She continues to serve on the court. 

Thomas McCants Stewart 
Howard University- Supreme Court of Liberia

 A minister, lawyer and civil rights leader, Thomas McCants Stewart was born in antebellum South Carolina, Upon completing high school McCants matriculated at Howard University at the age of 15.  Eventually, Stewart beame one of the first black graduates of the University of South Carolina, during the brief period of Reconstruction when they were admitted.  McCants taught math at the forerunner of South Carolina State before becoming pastor of a church in Brooklyn and a member of the Brooklyn school board, with a brief stint in Liberia.  He moved to Hawaii and then London before being appointed to the Liberian Supreme Court where he served from 1911 until 1914.  When he died in St. Thomas in 1923 he was buried wrapped in the LIberian flag.  

  • Image credits:  WACH/Fox57,  Sun Times/Richard Chapman, Massachusetts Statehouse News Service, Louisiana Supreme Court,  Dillard alumni website, Congressional Black Caucus site, Scherley Busch/Social Miami, Public Domain


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