Remembering Nelson M. Willis, in Honor of Black History Month

In 1940, Eloise Townsend visited a Lincoln, Illinois department store to purchase a hat with her friends. However, a clerk prevented Townsend, a Black woman, from trying on the hat, citing the store’s policies against allowing Black people to try on hats. Townsend brought a lawsuit against the department store, and an all-White jury awarded Townsend $25.

Nelson Willis in black and white
Nelson M. Willis, LLB 1918

Representing Townsend was Nelson M. Willis, an attorney who had made a career of advocating for civil rights. Townsend’s case hinged on 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. Civil rights advocates around the nation watched the trial and appeal unfold as a test case.

But it wasn’t Willis’s first, or last time, making history.

Willis was the first African American to graduate from the Law School, earning his Bachelor of Laws in 1918, a degree that the Law School phased out in 1937.

Willis started his law career in Kentucky before moving back to Illinois. He represented minority railroad workers and falsely accused criminal defendants. He made history as the first Black candidate for probate judge in Danville, Illinois, although he did not win the election.

In the 1930s, Willis worked with Earl B. Dickerson, another Law School alumnus, who chaired the NAACP Chicago chapter’s Legal Redress Committee.

Dickerson, who attended the Law School around the same time as Willis, was the first African American to earn a Juris Doctor, in 1920.

Later, Willis became president of the Cook County Bar Association, where he joined forces with Dickerson, now the president of the National Bar Association, to lead efforts to appoint African American judges in Cook County and overhaul the judicial system.

In 1950, Willis was elected to head the NAACP branch in Chicago, where he fought against segregation of public schools in Illinois. Willis also collaborated with Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, to defend Chicago NAACP lawyers (including future federal judge George Leighton) who were accused of sparking the 1951 Cicero race riot.

In 1959, Willis became the second Black person in the nation to be appointed prosecuting attorney, serving Lake County, Michigan. He died in Michigan almost ten years later, in 1967.

During the “hat try-on” case in 1943, a newspaper reported Willis’s argument before the jury, in which he verbalized the historical import of upholding the constitutionality of civil rights law. “This case is not only important to my client,” he said, “but important to every Negro in Lincoln, every Negro in Illinois, and every Negro in the United States, and to every Black soldier who is fighting in every part of the world for the protection of these United States. As important as it is to the Negro race, it is more important to the White race because the issues involved in this case are the basis for the whole world’s struggle that is now going on. America has proposed the four freedoms for the world, and before she can preach the four freedoms, she must first clean her own house.”

The University of Chicago Chapter: The Iota of Kappa Alpha Psi
Willis was a founding member of the University’s chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi.