The Black History of the Barristers’ Ball in Detroit

I was an infant the first time Detroit's Wolverine Bar Association threw its annual charity event, the Barristers' Ball. It was 1961, the high-flying days of Motown music and cars with sleek hood ornaments. Flash forward 25 years when I moved from Virginia to the Motor City after law school. The stories coming out of Detroit in the mid 1980s were mostly about the crack epidemic and carjackings. So while I was aware of Detroit's troubles, nothing prepared me for its grandeur.

I found myself at the Barristers' Ball in 1984 completely agog. I had stumbled into a massive celebration of Detroit's legal legacy, with its giants and their progeny. Even as a well-traveled military brat, I had never seen so many professional Black people in one room. I remember thinking, "I've arrived in the Mother Country."

This is the Barristers' Ball's 54th year. A black-tie event that regularly attracts upwards of 1,400 Black attorneys, along with business and community supporters, it's a good time-and the signature fundraiser for the Wolverine Bar Foundation.

Still, it remains one of the many "invisible" wonders of Black Detroit.

History of Detroit's Wolverine Bar Association

Chantez Knowles is the current president of the Wolverine Bar Association and has been active with it since she graduated from Wayne State University law school and passed the bar in 2008. Actually, even before that.

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"I was raised by my grandparents since age of 5; it was such a blessing that they could take me in," says Knowles, the first lawyer in her family. "When I got to law school, I had no idea what was going on or how to navigate. The Wolverine Bar's mentorship program really helped me be successful."

The Wolverine Bar Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to diversity in the legal community and quality of life in Detroit. It offers a summer law clerkship program for students and a judicial externship for graduates. It has a mentorship program to help students pass the bar exam, and the Damon J. Keith and Wolverine Bar Foundation scholarships to aid exceptional minority law students.

It was through the bar's clerkship program that Knowles became an associate at Bodman PLC in Detroit. She has continued her work with the bar even after becoming a corporate attorney for Consumers Energy and moving her family to Jackson, Michigan in 2012. "It is surreal that not even 10 years ago I went to my first ball, and now I'm helping run it. I'm part of the history of this organization. It's a duty and honor."

The Black tradition of the Barristers' Ball 

Too bad the regular news cycle would have you believe that Black Detroiters only end up on the wrong side of the law. This town's African-American lawyers have been defending rights and breaking barriers since Robert Barnes and Walter Stowers opened their firm in 1905. The Wolverine Bar traces its roots back to 1919 and was formally established in the 1930s. George Crockett Jr., along with Ernest Goodman, Morton A. Eden and Dean A. Robb, formed the first known integrated law firm in the United States in 1950. Michigan Supreme Court Justice Otis M. Smith became the first African-American on any state high court since Reconstruction. Attorney Harold Bledsoe, mentor to countless Detroit lawyers, also headed the National Bar Association in 1954. Federal appeals court judges Wade McCree Jr. and Damon Keith altered the course of civil rights.

"We have such a rich history," says Diane Hutcherson, this year's event chair. "It blows my mind that people don't know about the many firsts that we established in Detroit."

Hutcherson has only missed the ball once since joining the bar in 1985. "Besides parenting and teaching, I think law is the third most important profession," says Hutcherson, who practices with in-house counsel for AAA Michigan and teaches paralegal studies at Wayne County Community College District

I'm a grandmother now, and Detroit is finally getting the bright spotlight it deserves. But I wish that light would shine just as brightly on all that was built while Detroit struggled in the shadows. If you need a reminder of who we've always been, go to the law prom this year and see.

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