Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul wants students to view the legacy of Nelson Willis, the Law School’s first Black graduate, as a “road map” for their own personal histories. In his remarks at the October dedication of Willis’s official photograph at the Law School, Raoul had a simple message:
“It’s important to recognize firsts,” Raoul said. “Because firsts knock down the door and show you what’s possible for others who follow.”
Willis earned an LLB, or bachelor of laws, degree from the University of Chicago Law School in 1918, 16 years after the school’s founding. He went on to become a noted lawyer and civil rights advocate in Kentucky and Illinois, serving as president of the Cook County Bar Association and the Chicago chapter of the NAACP and helping to shape American civil rights law through several significant cases.
But his role in the Law School’s history faded from memory over the decades—until a current student, Adam Hassanein, ’21, rediscovered it.
Hassanein, the vice president of the Law School’s Black Law Students Association, spent the better part of his spring break researching another graduate of the University of Chicago: Earl Dickerson, 1920, the first African American to earn a JD, or juris doctor, degree from the Law School. (Willis and Dickerson entered the Law School a year apart but graduated with different degrees two years apart. Dickerson’s education was interrupted by his service in World War I.) As a member of the committee tasked with commemorating the centennial of Dickerson’s graduation, Hassanein immersed himself in the details of Dickerson’s life. After returning to Chicago, Hassanein found Dickerson’s photograph in a composite of the Class of 1920.
“I wanted to see what the Law School actually looked like in 1920,” Hassanein said. “I tried to figure out what they did with their lives. But when I got to the Class of 1918, I saw a face that stuck out so I did more research.”
That face belonged to Nelson Willis of Bogue Chitto, Mississippi.
Willis was born on June 6, 1889, in Raymond, Mississippi, the son of a rural schoolteacher. Willis ran away from home when he was 14 and worked his way through what is now Tougaloo College, a historically black liberal arts college near Jackson. After graduating from Tougaloo—on whose board Willis would serve for decades—he arrived at the Law School in September 1914. Willis supported himself at the Law School with odd jobs and by working as a railroad porter.
Speaking at the unveiling of Willis’s portrait, Dean Thomas J. Miles, the Clifton R. Musser Professor of Law and Economics, noted that Willis graduated from the Law School 22 years after the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation in public accommodations in Plessy v. Ferguson and 36 years before the Court’s first decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
“To have chosen to dedicate himself to a career in law, [Willis] must have had tremendous faith and hope in law and the legal system,” Miles said.
After graduating from the Law School, Willis began his career in Louisville, Kentucky. He returned to Illinois in 1931, practicing in Chicago and Danville. Willis’s clients included minority railway workers and falsely accused criminal defendants.
In a closely watched test case with national implications, Willis represented an African-American woman who was prohibited from trying on a hat at a department store in Lincoln, Illinois. At trial and on appeal, Willis successfully defended the constitutionality of an Illinois Civil Rights amendment that had been the first in the nation to make department stores subject to a civil rights law.
As president of the Cook County Bar Association, Willis—working alongside Earl Dickerson, who was president of the National Bar Association at the time—spearheaded initiatives seeking the election of African-American judges in Cook County and systemic reform of the judiciary. During his tenure as president of the Chicago chapter of the NAACP, Willis litigated the segregation of public schools in Illinois and served—again, with Dickerson—on the chapter’s Legal Redress Committee. Willis also worked alongside future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall during the representation of Chicago NAACP attorneys (including future federal judge George Leighton) who had been charged with inciting the 1951 Cicero race riot.
Willis moved to Lake County, Michigan, in 1957, where he was subsequently appointed to serve a two-year term as the county’s prosecuting attorney. Willis died in Michigan in May 1967.
Hassanein worked alongside Sheri Lewis, director of the D’Angelo Law Library, and Law School librarian Bill Schwesig to research Willis’s career. Hassanein, for his part, is glad that Willis is being recognized and remembered.
“To go through the troubles that [Willis] did to get an education is really remarkable,” Hassanein said. “I’m thankful for the Law School’s response.”
Marsha Ferziger Nagorsky, ’95, now the Law School’s associate dean for communications, said she remembers the lore of Earl Dickerson from her time at the Law School.
“We had been told that Earl Dickerson was our first African-American graduate, and I never had any reason to question that,” Nagorsky said. “As someone who does a great deal of work with the history of the Law School, I’m so grateful that Adam took the initiative and did the hard work to enable us to recognize Mr. Willis’s legacy.”
Willis’s photograph joins those of a number of other “firsts” who attended the Law School. In addition to photographs of Willis and Dickerson, the Law School displays framed photographs of Sophonisba Breckinridge, 1904 (the Law School’s first female graduate), Jewel Lafontant, ’46 (the Law School’s first African-American woman JD graduate), and Lafontant’s classmate and future husband John Rogers, ’46. The framed photographs can be found together outside of Room V.
At the Willis photograph’s unveiling, Miles said he hopes the Willis photograph will remind students what the legal system can accomplish—and what they can achieve with their Law School education. Quoting historian and former University professor John Hope Franklin, Miles underscored the importance of Willis’ story and the day’s events.
“Good history,” Miles said, “is a good foundation for a better present and future.”