Louis Lorenzo Redding, Delaware's first African American lawyer, was born on
October 25, 1901. He was the oldest child of Lewis and Mary Ann
lived on Walnut Street in Wilmington's east side.
The Redding children grew up during the days of "Jim Crow" segregation.
Delaware had laws that separated white and black people in almost every way--at work, in
schools, even at swimming pools, restaurants and movie theaters. Louis Redding used to
joke that during his childhood the only things that were not segregated were police
cars, meaning that the cars were painted white and black and were the only places where
white and black came together.
Because laws allowed employers to refuse employment to African Americans
and to pay
them lower wages, most of the people in Wilmington's black neighborhoods were poor.
Louis Redding's father was one of the first black postmen in Delaware; he
also worked part time for a private caterer. Because he had two good jobs, his family
lived in a home of their own, had plenty to eat, could wear fashionable clothes, and the
children could go to school rather than work.
Louis Redding attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, making one of only
a half-dozen black men in his class at the prestigious Ivy League school. He had
planned to become a doctor, but while at Brown, he discovered that he
hated biology but was
interested in law. There were no black lawyers in Delaware, but he met several
African American lawyers or law students in Providence. After college,
Redding entered Harvard Law School, the most prestigious school in
Delaware did not outlaw black lawyers, but the system required each prospective lawyer
to have a sponsor, and no white lawyer had ever agreed to
sponsor a black applicant. Louis and his father convinced Judge Daniel
O. Hastings to sponsor him, so he crossed the first difficult hurdle.
Redding had no friends among the
young lawyers studying for the bar exam and he did not even feel particularly welcome
observing other lawyers work in court. In those days, there was a "black" and a
"white" side of the courtroom. Whenever Louis sat in the wrong place the
bailiffs would shoo him out. In 1929 he passed the Delaware bar exam and
became Delaware's first African American attorney.
Redding was the
only black lawyer in Delaware for nearly 25 years. He had no lawyer friends at
first, for white lawyers were not sure they wanted anything to do with Louis Redding. Many
clients also were wary of going to a black lawyer. His clients were mostly poor so he made
very little money. But African Americans looked up to Redding for
defending the poor and the powerless.
Beginning in 1949, Redding began filing a series of lawsuits challenging
segregation laws in Delaware and the nation. In 1950, he won Parker v.
University of Delaware, forcing the University of Delaware to accept black students.
This was the first case in which African Americans won the right to attend a state
college. In 1954, Redding and a group of lawyers from across the country working
with the NAACP argued Brown v. Board of Education before the
United States Supreme Court. Their victory ended segregation in all public schools and
meant that white and black children would go to school together across the nation.
Redding was not always popular for his work. Some people resented the
changes that he helped bring about. In the years following Brown v. Board of Education
Redding received physical threats, hate mail, and frightening phone calls. These
particularly scared his wife and daughters. But Louis Redding went forward anyway. He
continued to practice law until he retired in 1984. Through courage, intelligence,
and faith in the law, Louis Redding helped force the United States of America to live
up to the ideals in its founding documents, that all people are created equal.