Redding, Louis L. 1901–1998
Louis L. Redding 1901–1998
During the civil rights era, Louis L. Redding was one of a group of lawyers who dismantled the structure of legal segregation in the South. As Delaware’s first African American lawyer, Redding struggled to ensure that his African American clients received equal treatment in the eyes of the law. Beginning in the late 1940s, he successfully fought for the right of African American students to attend the high-quality schools reserved for whites.
Redding won several important cases in Delaware, including Parker v. University of Delaware (1950), which marked the first time that a state-funded university was desegregated by court order. Four years later, Redding was one of a team of lawyers who argued the Brown v. Board of Education case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s historic ruling in that case struck down the “separate but equal rule,” and led to the desegregation of public schools throughout the nation.
In a memorial in IN RE, the newsletter of the Delaware State Bar Association, Irving Morris praised Redding’s courage and leadership in the fight against institutionalized racism. “We, in our state, would have continued in our old ways, blind to the discrimination and the lack of freedom in our own community,” Morris wrote. “Louis L. Redding courageously came forward to help us. He assumed the leadership of the effort to strike down the debilitating restrictions which doomed so many to lives of despair.”
Louis Lorenzo Redding was born in 1901 in Alexandria, Virginia. He was the son of Mary Ann (Holmes) Redding and Lewis Alfred Redding, who were both graduates of Howard University. This achievement was all the more impressive given that Lewis Redding’s mother had been a slave. When Redding was a small child, the family moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where they settled in a middle-class, mostly white neighborhood. Redding’s father supported the family by working at the postal service, as well as doing various odd jobs during vacations and after his regular work hours.
Both of Redding’s parents valued education highly, and encouraged their children to excel at school. Later, two of Redding’s sisters would become school teachers, while his younger brother, Jay Saunders Redding, would become the first African American faculty member at an Ivy League university.
As a student in Wilmington, Redding attended segregated schools, including Howard High School, the only high school for African Americans in the state. Decades later, Redding would successfully sue for the right of African American students to attend schools where they lived, rather than taking long bus rides into the city to attend Howard.
After graduating from high school, Redding went on to study at an Ivy League institution, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He excelled at Brown, and when he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1923, he delivered the commencement address. In the early
Born in 1901 in Alexandria, VA; died on September 29, 1998. son of Lewis Alfred Redding and Mary Ann (Holmes) Redding; married Ruth Albert Cook Redding (divorced); married Gwendolyn Carmen Kiah; children: Ann, Rupa, and Judith, Education: Brown University, AB, 1923; Harvard University Law School, JD, 1928.
Member: American Bar Association, National Bar Association.
Awards: Honorary law degree from Brown University.
1920s, Redding had a brief career as an educator. From 1923 to 1924, he was vice principal of Fessenden Academy in Ocala, Florida. From 1924 to 1925, he taught at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Redding then won a scholarship to Harvard Law School, where he began to pursue the career that would make him famous.
In Delaware, however, Redding’s prestigious education mattered much less than the color of his skin. On vacation from law school, he once wandered into the court house in Wilmington and took a convenient seat. When the guard pointed out the section reserved for African Americans, Redding refused to move and was thrown out of the courthouse.
In 1928, Redding received his law degree from Harvard. At the urging of his father, he decided to return to Delaware to practice law. The following year, Redding became the first African American admitted to the bar in Delaware. “Black Delaware badly needed his services,” Richard Kluger wrote in Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. In Delaware, most of the best lawyers focused on corporate law, while the white lawyers who did accept African American clients often charged exorbitant fees. “He [Redding] fought, largely alone, for the civil rights and liberties of black Delawareans by throwing all of his superior training and bottomless energy into representing them.” Redding would continue to be the only African American lawyer in Delaware for more than 25 years. “The path he traveled was a lonely one for few at the Bar welcomed him,” Irving Morris wrote in IN RE, “But he made no complaint. There was no one to whom he could complain. He persevered.”
By 1949, Redding had 20 years of legal experience behind him, and was ready to mount a challenge to the Jim Crow laws of his home state. That year, 30 students at the Delaware State College for Negroes applied to the all-white University of Delaware. After they were rejected—on the basis that an all-African American college had been provided for their education—they approached Redding about suing for admission.
Redding initially wrote to the university’s board of trustees, who refused to alter their decision. The following year, Redding went to court to argue Parker v. University of Delaware. He was assisted by Jack Greenberg, the first white lawyer to be hired by the NAACP. Redding would work with Greenberg on several historic cases, including Brown v. Board of Education.
After listening to their arguments, the judge visited both the white and African American colleges. Finding the all-African American college to be “grossly inferior,” he ordered the plaintiffs to be admitted to the all-white University of Delaware. It was the first time in the nation’s history that a university was desegregated by court order.
Redding next turned his attention to Delaware’s public schools. Under a segregated educational system, African American children often had to travel long distances to attend school, sometimes passing by superior white schools on their way. With Greenberg again at his side, Redding sought to bring down this system.
In 1951, Redding and Greenberg brought two cases to the court: Belton v. Gebhart, which concerned high school education, and Bulah v. Gebhart, which concerned elementary education. Redding lined up an impressive list of witnesses, including the acclaimed psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, who testified that segregated education severely damaged the mental health of African American children. The judge listened to the arguments, visited the schools in question, and in 1952 ordered that African American students be immediately admitted to white schools. For the first time, a segregated white public school in the United States had been ordered by a court of law to admit African American children.
However, while the state of Delaware had agreed to desegregate universities, it refused to accept integrated public schools, and therefore decided to appeal the ruling. Eventually, Redding’s cases were combined with the Brown v. Board of Education case, which was from Kansas, and other similar cases from Virginia and South Carolina. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the combined Brown v. Board of Education case.
The Delaware case was the last to be heard by the Court. Redding kept his arguments short, since many of the constitutional issues had already been cited by the other lawyers on the team. He simply argued that temporary solutions would not work, and the state should be permanently banned from segregating its students. In a historic decision, the Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine, desegregating public schools throughout the United States.
However, the struggle against racial segregation did not end with the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Returning to Delaware, Redding fought to force the state to abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling. “Through the years of the struggle in Delaware, neither a single school board, nor any of the attorneys for the school boards, nor the state board, nor the successive attorney generals and their deputies, nor any governor, nor the general assembly came forward to stand by Louis L. Redding’s side in opposition to the evil of racism in the public schools of Delaware,” Irving Morris wrote in IN RE, “The harsh fact is millions of dollars we could have spent for the education of all children we instead spent to defend racial segregation in our public schools.”
Redding would return to the Supreme Court once more, to argue the case of Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority. The court again agreed with Redding, ruling that a building funded by public money could not discriminate against its customers because of their race. In 1965, Redding became a public defender for the state of Delaware, and fought for the rights of poor clients for nearly 20 years. He retired in 1984, after 55 years of practicing law. On September 29, 1998, Redding died at the age of 96.
Following his death, Normal Lockman wrote in the News Journal (New Castle, Delaware) that “Redding made the term “racial equality” mean something at a time when black Americans were routinely—and legally—denied full citizenship… One of the first things he did was refuse to practice in racially segregated courtrooms. From that point forward he waged legal war on segregation—de jure or de facto—and won.” Irving Morris, writing in IN RE, added that “Some may say that all he did was to help those who desperately needed help and that is so, and, indeed, commendable in and of itself. But Louis Redding did far more. The fact is what he did was to help all of us, black and white, regardless of our station in life, confront our prejudices so that we may overcome the racism in our midst which bars us from becoming the free society we seek to achieve.”
In 1999, six months after Redding’s death, the University of Delaware established a professorship in his name. According to a university press release, the Louis L. Redding Chair for the Study of Law and Public Policy “will be filled by a scholar, teacher and community leader who will continue Mr. Redding’s commitment to the use of the law to achieve social justice for all Americans.” It was a fitting tribute to the man who had helped to desegregate the University of Delaware nearly 50 years earlier.
Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality, by Richard Kluger, Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
IN RE: (newsletter of the Delaware State Bar Association), November 1998, www.dsba.org
New York Times, Oct. 2, 1998.
News Journal (New Castle, Delaware), Feb. 3, 1999.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a University of Delaware press release dated Feb. 3, 1999, and accessible at www.udel.edu
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