On the shoulders of giants: Celebrating Black History Month with some of Virginia’s firsts

George E. Allen

George E. Allen

In 1964, George E. Allen, founder of the Allen Law Firm, received the very first Griffin Bell Award for Courageous Advocacy from the American College of Trial Lawyers. The award honors outstanding courage demonstrated by trial lawyers in unpopular or difficult cases, and it has only been presented to seventeen lawyers since its inception.

George E. Allen received this award in recognition of his efforts in the 1950s and 1960s. He represented African-American clients in high-profile civil rights cases that many white lawyers were shying away from at the time. The courage to stand up for what is right at all times lives on at the Allen Law Firm.

It is with this spirit that we, at Allen & Allen, take a moment to recognize some of the “firsts” for African-Americans in Virginia’s legal community. These individuals are some of the giants upon which today’s lawyers and judges of color in Virginia stand.

Virginia’s firsts:

  • Withall Wynn: 1st documented Black lawyer in Virginia, (1871)
  • James A. Fields: 1st Black judicial officer and commonwealth’s attorney (Warwick County) in Virginia, (1879)
  • Lavina Marian Fleming Poe: 1st Black female attorney in Virginia, (1925)
  • William T. Mason, Jr.: 1st Black assistant united states attorney, EDVA, (1963, appointed by President John F. Kennedy, Jr.)
  • Willard H. Douglas, Jr.: 1st Black judge in Virginia, Juvenile Court, (January 1974).
  • James E. Sheffield: 1st Black circuit court judge in Virginia, (November 1974)
  • John Charles Thomas: 1st Black justice on Supreme Court of Virginia, (1983)
  • James Benton, Jr.: 1st Black judge, Court of Appeals of Virginia, (1985)
  • James R. Spencer: 1st Black federal judge in Virginia, EDVA, (1986)
  • Angela Roberts: 1st Black female judge in Virginia, (1990)
  • Verbena M. Askew: 1st Black female circuit court judge in Virginia, (1993)
  • Roger L. Gregory: 1st Black judge on United States Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit, (2000) and first Black chief judge, (2016)
  • Leroy R. Hassell, Sr.: 1st Black chief justice on Supreme Court of Virginia, (2003)
  • Arenda L. Wright Allen: 1st Black female federal judge in Virginia, EDVA, (May 2011)
  • Cleo Powell: 1st Black female justice on Supreme Court of Virginia, (2011), Previous appointment to Court of Appeals of Virginia, (2008)
  • Doris Henderson Causey: 1st Black lawyer to serve as president of the Virginia State Bar, (2017)
Angela Roberts: 1st Black female judge in Virginia, (1990)

Angela Roberts: First Black female judge in Virginia

While we salute these trailblazers and their impact on the Virginia legal system, we also recognize that more work remains to be done. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “[i]f you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

We at Allen & Allen are committed to keep moving forward.



List compiled by Bruce C. Sams, President of the Old Dominion Bar Association (ODBA)