When Bernette Joshua Johnson enrolled in Louisiana State University Law School in the fall of 1965, she was one of two African-Americans, both female, in that entering class of 152 students. Johnson graduated in January 1969 in a class of 44.
In 1954, Ernest N. (Dutch) Morial had been the first African-American to earn a law degree from LSU. Johnson worked for Morial in the office he shared with prominent civil rights attorney A.P. Tureaud. Roy Wilson (the plaintiff in the 1950 lawsuit, Wilson v. LSU, brought by Tureaud that opened the law school to African-American students), Morial and Judge Robert Collins had been the first African-Americans to attend LSU Law School. All were in the 1950s.
Johnson and Gammiel Berthella Gray became pioneering African-American female LSU Law students 10 years after the first African-American student was graduated — in a time when both AfricanAmericans and female students were still rarities at the law school. There were no African-American or female law faculty members or administrators.
For the pioneering students as well as fellow LSU classmates, law faculty, administrators and other staff, there were mutual valuable lessons learned during their matriculation.
Former classmates, Thomas R. Blum and Margaret O’Meara Correro, described Johnson and Gray as courageous, brave, friendly and outgoing. To them, the two showed great dignity and courtesy to others while navigating a hostile environment.
One of her former law professors, Benjamin M. Shieber (Professor Emeritus at LSU Law), described Johnson as a very good student and believes that LSU Law School benefitted from having her and Gray as students.
“I remember when I saw them (Johnson and Gray) I thought to myself those girls are brave, you know, because it was a different time in 1965,” said Blum, currently with the law firm of Simon, Peragine, Smith & Redfearn, L.L.P., in New Orleans.
At that time, Blum believes that Americans, particularly Southerners, were adjusting to the idea that African-Americans had access to all the things that the white people had. “People had to grow used to it. There were still social barriers because you didn’t know how to act with each other, because you had no experience,” he said.
As a pioneering white female student, Correro remembers that LSU Law School was an “awkward and hostile environment” in many ways for her as well. Born and reared in Lake Charles and a graduate of Vassar University, Correro lived in the same on-campus housing as Johnson. She recalled that Johnson once mentioned that she felt invisible because nobody would talk with her “for days on end” at school.
Correro said she also felt some of that coldness from the male students, noting that they projected the viewpoint of “wish you weren’t here, so I’m going to pretend you aren’t here.” She also had to ignore some of their insensitive remarks. “Somebody told me, you know you are taking the place of a man with a family,” she said. “So you just put your head down and did your work, which I think is what she (Bernette Johnson) did and what I did. You just lived through it,” she said.
“I didn’t really reach out to them (Johnson and Gray) to be special friends,” Blum admitted, “but, on the other hand, I had no reason to avoid them. (But) there were people in the law school class who avoided them, through racial attitudes or through just not knowing how to behave around a black woman. Who knows?”
Blum said Johnson shared a story with him regarding assistance he gave to her and Gray, when he informed them of a change in time for their legal writing class. Apparently Johnson and Gray had not gotten the word and would have missed the class, which was rescheduled for an earlier time. Johnson said she remembered that gesture because he was nice enough to help.
Blum’s act of kindness also was appreciated when, in their freshman year, Johnson’s brother was killed in an automobile accident. Seeing her on campus, Blum went up to her and shook her hand. He told her he had heard that her brother had died and that he was really sorry. “I wanted to let her know that I felt her pain and that she would be okay,” he said. Blum remembered the look on her face that she was touched by his expression of concern.
Acknowledging that he didn’t see any open hostility toward Johnson and Gray, Blum knew that attending LSU at that time was difficult for them. “If I were in their shoes, I’d feel awkward and I would have to wake up every morning and tell myself there’s a reason I’m doing this and it’s a good thing and I’m going to do it again today,” he said.
To put the time of Johnson and Gray’s enrollment at LSU in historical perspective: the Civil Rights Act of 1965 had just passed.
Blum said that some classmates had a dim view of the legality of the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965.
Correro thought it strange that there was “this big civil rights movement going on” and many law students didn’t want to talk about it. She said one classmate attributed the lack of discussion of the topic to law students’ concerns about their families and getting a job. “They (didn’t) want to make any waves because a lot of them had small children and wives and they (were) just worried about getting out of law school and having some law firm hire them. It was just too controversial an issue. But it did seem to me that law students, if anybody, would be interested in what was happening around us on the national scene,” Correro said.
Shieber, who taught at LSU Law School starting in 1964, said there was considerable discussion about the topic in his constitutional law classes. Johnson attended his classes in constitutional law, basic civil procedure and labor law. In all the courses, the professor recalls that Johnson worked hard and did well. She did particularly well in constitutional law, he said, noting the significance constitutional law had to civil rights.
Shieber’s philosophy on civil rights is that people should be treated as individuals “based on their character, accomplishments and their merits, and that should be regardless of how they happened to have been born, or what they happened to believe, or who they want to associate with. I think our Constitution is one that provides for that kind of society.”
There was definitely value to having Justice Johnson in his class and in the law school in general, Shieber said. “Getting to know her as a person was beneficial to the people in school at the time. I think that was a contribution to make the school better and those people better,” he said.
As there were very few African-American and women students and no Chicano students at LSU Law School in the 1960s, diversity was very limited during the years that Johnson attended law school, Shieber said. But, things have changed. “I think today the law school is quite diversified, both in terms of gender and in terms of the racial makeup of the student body and of the faculty,” he said.
Johnson became the first African-American woman to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court as both associate justice and chief justice, a title she earned in 2013. With a career that has spanned more than 40 years, Johnson has accumulated a number of honors, including induction in the LSU Law Center’s Hall of Fame in 1996, being named one of the 2012 LSU Legends by the A.P. Tureaud, Sr. Black Alumni Chapter of the LSU Alumni Association and most recently induction into the LSU Alumni Association’s Hall of Distinction in 2016.
Commenting on Justice Johnson’s trailblazing career, Shieber said her “career speaks for itself. It shows the kind of person she is, how she was able to achieve all of (those firsts) — first woman on the civil court, then one of the first women on the court of appeal and one of the first women on the Louisiana Supreme Court, and now the first African-American chief justice (man or woman) on the state Supreme Court. The fact that she was able to stick it through and graduate when many others in her class were not able to do that is a sign of her ability and determination to do the work.”
Gray retired from the General District Court for the 6th Circuit of Virginia, where she was the first African-American woman to serve as judge in the 6th Judicial Circuit. She also has been a partner in the law firm of Poindexter & Poindexter in Surry Co., Va., since 1973.
No doubt, the two women can attribute much of their career success to their experiences inside and outside of the classroom at LSU Law School through lessons in the law, perseverance, patience and overcoming challenges. The lessons learned were mutual and mutually beneficial.
Reprinted from Louisiana Bar Journal, Vol. 60, No. 5, February/March 2013, published by the Louisiana State Bar Association.