Barbee, Lloyd Augustus

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Lloyd Augustus Barbee


Lawyer, politician, educator, civil-rights activist

A prominent lawyer, state representative, and civil-rights activist, Lloyd Barbee was the driving force behind efforts to desegregate public schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city long known for its deep racial divisions. The cornerstone of those efforts, a federal lawsuit known as Amos et al. v. Board of School Directors of the City of Milwaukee, occupied Barbee for more than a decade. Though the plaintiffs, for whom he acted as lead counsel, eventually prevailed, Barbee came to view the victory as a partial one. Still, he noted in comments quoted by Maxine Aldridge White and Joseph A. Ranney in the April 2004 issue of Wisconsin Lawyer, "I am not discouraged. I have seen more difficult times. We are not as well off as we could be, but we are better off than we were."

The youngest of three sons born to Earnest A. and Adlena G. Barbee, Barbee was born August 17, 1925, in Memphis, Tennessee. His mother died shortly after his birth, and he was raised by his father, who worked as a painting contractor, and an extended family that included several teachers and businesspeople. After attending segregated public schools, Barbee served in the U.S. Navy for three years, from 1943 to 1946, before entering LeMoyne College, a predominately African-American institution in Memphis. He received a bachelor's degree in social sciences from LeMoyne in 1949, then moved north to attend law school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Frustrated with the racist attitudes he encountered among professors and fellow students, Barbee dropped out after his first year. After spending several months as a student organizer for a social-change organization called Americans for Democratic Action, he returned to the university, where he received a law degree in 1956. His first major position after passing the bar exam was with the Madison-based Industrial Commission of Wisconsin (ICW), where he served as a law examiner for five years, from 1957 to 1962. He then moved to Milwaukee and began his own law firm.

Even while struggling with the demands of law school and his early career, Barbee worked many hours as a volunteer in a variety of civil-rights causes. Central to his work in this area was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization Barbee had joined in Memphis at the age of twelve. He would fill a variety of positions for the organization over the course of his career, including the presidencies of the Madison branch, from 1955 to 1960, and the Wisconsin chapter, from 1961 to 1964. At the same time, Barbee worked as a civil-rights consultant for state and local government, serving, for example, as legal consultant for the Wisconsin Governor's Commission on Human Rights in 1959. He also helped to draft the city of Madison's Equal Opportunity Ordinance (passed in 1964), one of the first of its kind in the country. While he most often worked behind the scenes, Barbee did not hesitate to lead nonviolent protests in the streets when he felt it necessary. In 1961, for example, he led a thirteen-day sit-in at the State Capitol in Madison, a dramatic event that galvanized support for several antidiscrimination bills then pending.

As energetic as Barbee had been as a civil-rights advocate in Madison, he redoubled his efforts after moving to Milwaukee, a city with a much larger African-American population and a troubled history of racial relations. With the encouragement of other civil-rights leaders, he ran successfully for the State Assembly, serving six terms, from 1965 to 1977, as the representative for Milwaukee's largely African-American "Inner Core" neighborhood. Shortly after taking office Barbee demanded that the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system develop a comprehensive plan for ending the segregation visible in its institutions. While he acknowledged that segregation was not the result of an explicit policy by MPS, he argued that many of its day-to-day decisions served to concentrate African Americans in schools with inferior facilities and equipment. Particularly disturbing to Barbee in this regard was MPS's tendency to place African-American teachers only in predominately African-American schools and to deny requests by individual African-American students to transfer out of those schools. In response, MPS claimed that the racial disparities in its institutions were due to settlement patterns over which it had no control. With the stage thus set for a confrontation, Barbee immediately formed a group called the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC) in 1965 to coordinate reform efforts. While MUSIC's marches and protests brought some minor concessions by MPS, Barbee was not satisfied, and in July of 1965 he filed suit in federal court, arguing that MPS was violating African-American students' rights to equal protection under the law.

Amos et al. v. Board of School Directors of the City of Milwaukee proved one of the most important desegregation cases filed in a northern city in the civil-rights era. Barbee served as lead counsel for the plaintiffs throughout the case, often working alone as he scrutinized hundreds of hours of testimony and thousands of documents. In 1976, eleven years after the suit was filed, Judge John Reynolds ruled against MPS. Barbee's work was far from over, however, as Judge Reynolds asked him to help draft a comprehensive solution. MPS, meanwhile, appealed the decision. While the federal appeals court asked Judge Reynolds to reconsider certain technical points, the basic reasoning behind his decision was affirmed, and Amos has since become an important part of the nation's case law on the issue of desegregation. Despite this victory, Barbee felt much more work needed to be done, noting, in particular, the mixed results of the remedial steps he helped design and implement. While several of these steps, including innovative resource-sharing agreements with white-majority suburban school districts, have helped alleviate some of the worst racial disparities in Milwaukee's schools, the quest for what Barbee often called "equal educational opportunity" continues.

Following the end of the Amos case, Barbee concentrated on his private law practice, though he remained active in civil-rights causes and taught for twelve years, from 1976 to 1988, as a lecturer and adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin's Milwaukee campus. He died on December 29, 2002, at the age of seventy-seven.

At a Glance …

Born on August 17, 1925, in Memphis, TN; died December 29, 2002; son of Earnest A. (a painting contractor) and Adlena G. Barbee; married Roudaba Bunting, 1954 (divorced 1960); children: three. Military service: U.S. Navy, 1943-46. Education: LeMoyne College, BA, social sciences, 1949; University of Wisconsin-Madison, LLB, 1956.

Career: Industrial Commission of Wisconsin, law examiner, 1957-62; Governor's Commission on Human Rights, Wisconsin, legal consultant, 1959; lawyer in private practice, 1962-2002; Wisconsin State Assembly, representative, 1965-77; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, lecturer, 1976-80, adjunct professor, 1980-88.

Memberships: American Bar Association; National Bar Association; Wisconsin Bar Association; Wisconsin Black Lawyers Association; National Association of Black Veterans; NAACP, president of Madison, WI, chapter, 1955-60, president of Wisconsin conference, 1961-64.

Awards: Milwaukee Man of the Year, Alpha Phi Alpha, 1965; Medgar Evers Award, NAACP (Milwaukee chapter), 1969; Faculty Award, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1985; Black Excellence Award, The Milwaukee Times, 1994; Eunice Z. Edgar Award for Lifetime Libertarian Achievement, ACLU (Wisconsin chapter), 1995; City of Milwaukee, Proclamation of September 6 as Lloyd A. Barbee Day, 1997, dedication of West Barbee Street, 1997.



Wisconsin Lawyer, April 2004.


"At the Heart of Barbee's Many Causes Was Education," JS Online (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), January 31, 2004, (accessed August 11, 2008).

"Lloyd A. Barbee Papers, 1933-1982," University of Wisconsin Digital Collections, (accessed August 11, 2008).

Ranney, Joseph A., "Attorney Lloyd Barbee," Wisconsin Court System, (accessed August 11, 2008).

—R. Anthony Kugler