Richardson, Scovel

views updated

Scovel Richardson

Judge, lawyer, educator

In an outstanding and diverse legal career, Scovel Richardson made a huge impact through his pioneering role as one of the first African Americans to serve in the federal judiciary system and his work in and on behalf of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the larger African American community. He was one of many African American professionals in the legal system who led by example and action during the transition from segregation to integration of blacks into the mainstream of U.S. society, and expanded his influence to national and international levels.

Scovel Richardson was born on February 4, 1912 in Nashville, Tennessee, to M. Scovel and Capitola W. Hawkins Richardson. His family eventually relocated to Chicago, where he attended and graduated from Wendell Phillips High School. Remaining in the state, Richardson attended the University of Illinois, where he received a B.A. in 1934 and an M.A. in 1936. The title of his master's thesis was "Denial of Justice in International Law."

In addition to his early intellectual achievements, Richardson was also noted for his athletic ability in boxing during his college years. He decided to pursue a career in law and was admitted to the Howard University law school in Washington, D.C., where he completed studies for his law degree in 1937.

Begins Legal Career in Midwest

Richardson returned to Chicago, where he worked for a time as a salesman at Michelson's, a retail establishment in the city, until he could develop a base of clients as a lawyer. He also married the former Inez Williston of Washington, D.C. on July 3, 1937. In 1938, Richardson entered the private practice of law with the firm of Lawrence and Richardson, where he remained for the next two years.

In the neighboring state of Missouri, events were taking place which would affect Richardson and the future direction of his legal career. Lloyd L. Gaines, a 1935 graduate of Lincoln University, the HBCU established in 1866, applied for and was refused admission to the law school at the University of Missouri. A lawsuit was filed against the state and the university (Gaines v. Missouri), and the state supreme court ruled that, since provision had been made for Gaines and other African Americans to attend law schools in other states, their rights to pursue a legal education had not been denied.

The court's decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which outlawed tuition aid for out-of-state study by African American citizens of states practic-ing segregation in its 1938 ruling on the case and required the state of Missouri to provide access to equal in-state facilities. The University of Missouri had to admit Gaines, or the state had to establish a law school at Lincoln. The state chose the second option, and Richardson was recruited for a position on the law faculty of the new school, which opened in St. Louis with thirty students in September 1939.

Richardson was uniquely qualified to assist in the development of the Lincoln law school, as he had experienced both the dynamics of segregation and the HBCU setting while in Washington at Howard. In addition, W. E. Taylor, the former acting dean at Howard, was the dean of the Lincoln law school, so Richardson, who had been hired as an associate professor, and the five other faculty members could build the law school based on the Howard model.

While living in St. Louis, Richardson joined the St. Louis Negro Bar Association but made headlines when he moved his family into a white neighborhood in the city and challenged the city's leading bar association for not allowing black lawyers to join the organization. He remained in his home despite attempts at intimidation from white homeowners and real estate groups and won a lawsuit affirming his right to live where he chose.

In 1943, during World War II, Richardson made the decision to leave his professorship to accept his first gov-ernment position, as a senior attorney in the Office of Price Administration (Stabilization). He relocated to Washington and worked in this capacity until 1947, returning to Missouri and Lincoln to become a full professor and dean of the law school. By this time the Richardson family includes four daughters: Frances Elaine, Alice Inez, and twins Mary Louise and Marjorie Linda.

Despite the significance of leading one of the few law schools at HBCUs, Richardson continued to challenge the legal segregation in the state that led to its existence. African Americans were still being denied admission to traditionally white institutions in southern and border states enforcing these laws, yet Richardson pressed forward, knowing that success in changing the established order could have negative implications for Lincoln and other HBCUs. At the same time, according to the Washington Post, he stressed in public forums such as the 1947 Young Republican National Federation convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that "Negroes are a people unshaken in their devotion to their country" who would not be divided by "the merchants of hate."

Richardson and his African American colleagues in the legal profession were encouraged by Executive Order 9981 of President (and Missouri native) Harry S. Truman, which desegregated the military services/armed forces on July 26, 1948. His Howard mentors and peers such as Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, James M. Nabrit, and others were involved in additional cases through the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that continued to attack legal segregation, culminating with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case and decision in 1954.

Even though Richardson was a Republican, he, along with most African Americans, was supportive of the progressive policies of the Democratic administration led by Truman. As a result, African American voters may very well have given Truman the margin of victory in the 1948 election. Richardson remained at his post as dean of the Lincoln law school during the presidency of his fellow Missourian, while also serving in various capacities with the National Bar Association (NBA), an alliance of blacks in the legal profession. He was elected as national president of the NBA in 1951 and served the organization in that role for a year.

Receives Presidential Appointments

With the election of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower as president in the 1952 election, Richardson's national profile increased. The new president appointed him to the U.S. Board of Parole on August 3, 1953. He was the first African American to receive this distinction and made history again when he became the first African American member of the Bar Association of St. Louis in late 1953. Richardson also was the first African American from Missouri to be admitted into the American Bar Association and the American Law Institute, to serve as president of the Urban League of St. Louis, and to belong to the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce.

After resigning from his deanship at Lincoln, Richardson relocated to Washington with his family to assume his new responsibilities. The board had recently been enlarged from five to seven members and given additional jurisdiction over cases involving juvenile as well as adult offenders. One of the most celebrated cases heard by Richardson during his first year on the board involved denying the second parole application of Alger Hiss, a former government official convicted of perjury regarding his relationship with known Communists during the McCarthy era.

On September 28, 1954, Richardson became the chair of the parole board upon the recommendation of Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. During his years of service, he developed a reputation for being stern, yet kindly and fair to the thousands of prisoners and numerous cases that came before the board. In 1955 Richardson served on an advisory council on corrections organized by Brownell to examine treatment and correction of federal offenders and methods to prevent crime and delinquency. The 1956 report issued by Richardson indicated that the successful parole rate of federal prisoners had remained at 80 percent for the previous seven years, evidence that the system was working well in rehabilitation of offenders.


Born in Nashville, Tennessee on February 4
Receives bachelor's degree from University of Illinois
Receives masters degree from University of Illinois
Receives law degree from Howard University; marries Inez Williston
Becomes associate professor of law at Lincoln University of Missouri
Accepts position as senior attorney, Office of Price Administration, in Washington, D.C.
Returns to Lincoln as professor and law school dean
Appointed by Eisenhower to U.S. Board of Parole; becomes chair the next year
Appointed by Eisenhower to judgeship on U.S. Customs Court
Elected chair of Howard University board of trustees
Dies in New Rochelle, New York on March 30

The success of Richardson in this role prompted speculation in late 1956 that he was under consideration for a higher level appointment, possibly a judgeship on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. This would have made him the first African American to serve at that level in the continental United States, but he did not receive that particular appointment.

Richardson retained his position as chair of the parole board until March 4, 1957, when Eisenhower, upon another recommendation from Brownell, nominated him to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Customs Court in New York City after the death of Judge William A. Ekwall in October 1956. When his presidential nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Richardson became the first Howard University law graduate and second African American to serve on the court, joining Judge Irvin C. Mollison, a Truman appointee. This made him the third African American with the status of Article III federal judge (lifetime appointment based on Article III of the Constitution), and the only African American appointed by Eisenhower to the federal judiciary.

Federal Judge and Influential Role Model

In connection with his new position, Richardson and his family relocated again, this time to New Rochelle, New York, a suburb of New York City. His four daughters were all in their teens, with the eldest, Frances, already following in her father's footsteps at age sixteen as a pre-law student at American University in Washington. Richardson was an honored alumni guest at events celebrating the ninety-first anniversary of Howard University in March 1958, during which he received a citation from the university in recognition of his career and achievements.

Richardson also became a part of elite Washington and New York social circles, with invitations to such events as a 1959 state dinner at the White House hosted by President and Mrs. Eisenhower, in honor of President and Mrs. Sekou Toure of the newly independent African republic of Guinea. He and his family were often profiled in the society pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as prominent African American newspapers such as the New York Amsterdam News, the Afro-American (Baltimore), and the Pittsburgh Courier.

Richardson's work as one of nine judges on the U.S. Customs Court involved ruling on a wide variety of cases related to tariffs and other taxes on products, goods, and other items imported to the United States. One of the most celebrated cases during his early years on the court involved a work by Pablo Picasso, one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century.

In 1960 a three-judge panel from the court, including Richardson, overruled U.S. customs inspectors, who called the Picasso artwork "an article of glass" and levied a duty of 30 percent of its value instead of the 20 percent fee designated for pieces of art. This ruling was consistent with their earlier decision regarding a collage by another artist, Alberto Burri, in November 1958, which inspectors had called a "manufacture of vegetable matter," according to the New York Times. As a result of that case, New York Senator Jacob K. Javits introduced legislation to amend the Tariff Act of 1930 regarding art objects. This became law in 1959 and further influenced the ruling of Richardson and his colleagues.

Richardson and his wife remained involved in the African American community through organizations such as the Howard University Alumni Club of New York; New York alumni chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, his college fraternity; and the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem. In 1961 Richardson was involved in the alumni celebration for his former legal colleague and fellow law school dean, James M. Nabrit Jr., who had become the president of Howard during the previous year. The Richardsons were also involved in a New York reception for the United Nations delegate from Tanganyika, Dr. V. Kyaruzi, and his wife on December 31, 1961.

In 1966 Richardson became the presiding judge of the Third Division of the U.S. Customs Court and continued in this capacity through 1970. In 1968 he was honored again when Howard elected him as chair of the university board of trustees and led the board in the selection process for a new president upon the retirement of Dr. Nabrit. During these years he also was active in the Bar Association of New York City, a trustee of Colgate University, a board member for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and the National Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church, and a director of the New Rochelle Hospital.

Richardson worked to ensure a smooth transition of leadership at Howard, which experienced its fair share of controversy and student unrest in the late 1960s. He supported the interests of the older generation of faculty, alumni, and administrative leadership, who respected and supported Nabrit for his involvement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team that won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case and his leadership of the law school and university.

Nabrit was rightfully lauded for his many achievements and contributions, yet Richardson and the selection committee made a bold choice for his successor in Dr. James E. Cheek, who had experienced great success at Shaw University, an HBCU in Raleigh, North Carolina, after becoming its president at age 31 in 1963. Cheek was viewed as being more attuned to the interests of both younger and older alumni, faculty, and current students interested in seeing the university become even more relevant to the larger African American community. The wisdom of Richardson and the Howard board became evident, as Cheek went on to successful leadership and presidency of the university.

In his primary responsibility as judge on the Customs Court, Richardson continued to issue key rulings on tariff and trade related cases that came before the judicial panels and the court as a whole. As technology imports increased in the 1970s, Richardson and his colleagues came in conflict with the U.S. Treasury Department when the court ruled that tariffs had to be paid by Japanese man-ufacturers of electronic goods. Their decision had major implications for U.S. trade relationships with Japan, and U.S. pricing practices for Japanese electronic products, while supporting the position that American manufacturers were hurt by the existing trade agreements.

The judicial panel, including Richardson, indicated that not requiring Japanese exporters to pay duties on their products was beyond the scope and intent of the 1930 Tariff Act and ordered the U.S. Treasury Department to estimate percentages of import taxes to be assessed on Japanese products by customs officers. Richardson personally noted, according to the New York Times, that the Treasury Department policy was "in conflict with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States construing the countervailing statute, and must yield", and that the Treasury Secretary "must discharge his responsibilities in accord with the Congressional intent in that statute as interpreted by the Supreme Court."

On October 31, 1980 the name of the U.S. Customs Court was officially changed to the U.S. Court of International Trade, and Richardson was formally reassigned to his same position on November 1. Despite the name change, his duties were unchanged, and he continued until his death after suffering a heart attack on March 30, 1982 in New Rochelle.

Judge Scovel Richardson was survived by his wife, four daughters, four grandchildren, a brother, Dr. Reuben Richardson, and a sister, Mary Walker. He left a legacy with the federal judiciary and with the HBCUs and other universities where he studied and served, in the African American community, and the nation at large.

Among the many awards and recognitions he received during and after his life, Richardson may very well have been most proud of the Scovel Richardson scholarship, awarded to African American law students by the Mound City Bar Association of St. Louis. Within his family, some of his children followed him into the legal profession and a grandson, John Lawrence Harrisingh, became a Howard graduate, Fordham University law school graduate, and practicing attorney in New York City by the end of the 1980s.



Chase, Harold W., Samuel Krislov, Keith O. Boyum, and Jerry N. Clark. Biographical Dictionary of the Federal Judiciary. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1976.

Matney, William C, ed. Who's Who among Black Americans. 3rd ed. Northbrook, Ill.: Who's Who Among Black Americans, Inc. Publishing Co., 1981.

Sanders, Charles L., ed. 1,000 Successful Blacks. Chicago, Ill.: Johnson Publishing Co., 1973.


"Appointment ad Valorem: Scovel Richardson." New York Times, 5 March 1957.

Brooks, Charles. "Why the Judiciary Matters to Black America." New York Amsterdam News, 27 February 2003.

"Court Orders Duties on Electronic Goods Coming from Japan." New York Times, 13 April 1977.

"Forum Talks Mark Young GOP Sessions." Washington Post, 7 June 1947.

"Judge Heads Trustees at Howard U." Washington Post, 1 May 1968.

"Mosaic by Picasso is Art, Court Says." New York Times, 6 May 1960.

"President Names 7 to Parole Board." New York Times, 24 July 1953.

"Richardson Chosen for Judgeship." Washington Post, 5 March 1957.

"Richardson to Head U.S. Parole Board." Washington Post, 29 September 1954.

"Scovel Richardson, U.S. Judge." New York Times, 31 March 1982.


Just the Beginning Foundation. "Scovel Richardson." (Accessed 3 May 2005).

Lincoln University of Missouri. "The Question of Separate but Equal." (Accessed 3 May 2005).

Mound City Bar Association. "Scovel Richardson Scholarship Award." (Accessed 2 May 2005).

United States Parole Commission, U.S. Department of Justice. "History of the Federal Parole System." (Accessed 2 May 2005).

                                     Fletcher F. Moon

About this article

Richardson, Scovel

Updated About content Print Article