University names classroom after first Black attorney

Rhode Island

Carol Ozemhoya | OW Contributor | 9/13/2019, 11:36 a.m.

It’s hard to imagine the strength, determination and courage that made Dorothy R. Crockett tick. But those elements have put her on a pedestal in Rhode Island, where a university is naming a classroom in honor, reports the Providence Journal.

In 1932, she joined the Rhode Island bar, despite attending law school amid the Great Depression, despite being a woman and despite being a woman of color at a time when racism reigned in America. Such was the remarkable life of Crockett, who ranks as the state’s first female African American lawyer and its seventh female lawyer overall. The accomplishments of Crockett, who became Crockett Bartleson after marriage, were memorialized Tuesday at Roger Williams University School of Law, where a classroom was dedicated in her honor.

“Through all of that struggle she pushed forward,” Bre’Anna Metts-Nixon, president of the Black Law Students Association, said as Crockett’s daughter, Dianne Bartleson, of Surprise, Ariz., observed. Metts-Nixon urged other Black and Brown students to persevere with the same conviction Crockett embodied. Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson, a trailblazer herself as the first African American and the second woman to sit on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, pondered what influenced Crockett to become a lawyer and an outspoken member of the African American community.

Thompson recalled a court case playing out at the time involving nine young Black men accused of raping two White women aboard a train. Their case flew through the courts with inadequate representation, leading the men, known as the Scottsboro Boys, to quickly be convicted and sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed those convictions, finding that African Americans, too, have a right to competent, effective counsel.

“I know that she had to have kept her eye on that case,” Thompson said as the keynote speaker at the dedication that more than 100 students, lawyers and others attended. Indeed, much about Crockett remains a mystery as she died at age 44, when her daughter was just 7 years old. Bartleson learned at a funeral late in life of her mother’s chosen profession and even later that Crockett was Rhode Island’s first female African American lawyer.

“The immensity of that accomplishment didn’t really hit me,” Bartleson said. Then the rarity of women becoming lawyers in that era, let alone and women of color, sank in. “It’s all been quite... incredible. Almost unreal,” added Bartleson, a retired public school teacher. Bartleson and her husband, Harold Lewis, were on hand Tuesday to witness the dedication of the “The Dorothy R. Crockett Classroom.”