Maryland posthumously admits state’s first Black lawyer to the bar, more than 165 years later

The Maryland State Supreme Court has posthumously admitted Edward Garrison Draper to the bar, making him the state’s first Black lawyer.

The court held a special session to honor Draper on October 26, nearly 166 years to the day that Draper was denied his license to practice law in the state because he was a Black man.

“The wall of discrimination, inequality and injustice prevented Mr. Draper from contributing to the mosaic of jurisprudence in Maryland,” State Supreme Court Justice Michele Hotten said during the session.

“However, the seed of that promise has ripened into the fruit of a great legacy of determination.”

In March, John Browning, a former Justice on Texas’ Fifth District Court of Appeals and a legal historian, petitioned the Maryland Supreme Court for Draper to be posthumously admitted to the bar.

Draper graduated from Dartmouth and sought a law license from Baltimore Superior Court Judge Zachaeus Collins Lee on October 29, 1857. At the time, Browning noted during the session, only five Black men had successfully become lawyers in the United States, slavery was still legal in Maryland and the state’s law licenses were restricted only to White men.

Judge Lee was a slave owner who also happened to be the first cousin of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

“You can kind of imagine what his reaction was when he sees a Black man - an educated Black man - enter his courtroom and say, ‘I want to be a lawyer,’” Browning told CNN.

Lee issued Draper a certificate stating he was “qualified in all respects to be admitted to the Bar of Maryland, if he was a free White citizen.” Draper later immigrated to Liberia with his wife to practice law, according to Browning.

More than 165 years later, Wes Moore, Maryland’s first Black governor, celebrated the decision to correct the historic wrong and honored Draper’s dedication to justice.

“Judge Lee saw Mr. Draper’s talents, Judge Lee saw Mr. Draper’s skills but still, Judge Lee saw that he lacked one important qualification: he wasn’t White,” Gov. Moore said.

“We are here to right a historic wrong. It is a wrong we did not commit, but it is one we will correct … While justice was delayed, justice can no longer be denied,” said Moore.

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