Remembering UChicago alum Earl Dickerson’s trailblazing legacy

Dickerson, JD’1920, helped shape fight for economic and racial justice, in court and beyond

There’s a black-and-white photograph—an iconic image of Martin Luther King Jr. proclaiming “I Have a Dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—that tells an apt story about Earl Burrus Dickerson, the first African American to earn a JD from the University of Chicago Law School.

Taken at just the right angle, the image places Dickerson within a whisper of the spotlight, a position he occupied regularly over decades of legal practice, business leadership, and public service. He isn’t the focal point; instead, he’s several bodies from the podium at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, listening to King’s dream with the careful attention of a man deeply involved in both the vision and the labor sustaining it.

His proximity to King hints at his stature: By 1963, Dickerson was a member of the national board of the NAACP, the president of an increasingly successful Black-owned life insurance company that had expanded economic opportunities for African Americans, and a trailblazing lawyer with both a famous Supreme Court win and several barrier-breaking milestones to his credit.

What the photo doesn’t say is this: Dickerson’s contributions to fair housing, fair employment, and racial justice were already intricately woven into the story of Chicago, his adopted home. His influence on the city, the American civil rights movement and the legal profession would be felt for decades. And despite this, 57 years later, his legacy would resemble his appearance in that photo—standing at the edge of history he’d helped create, barely recognizable to the majority of Americans.

“There are a lot of figures who both affect the course of history and capture the spirit of an age but are not always visible when we recite our history,” Prof. William Hubbard said in December. “In Earl Dickerson’s case, it could have been bias, or neglect, or that people’s attention was focused, for a variety of reasons, on more familiar names. He did a lot of work in the ’30s and ’40s, which was a time when America collectively was preoccupied with other things—recovery from the Depression, then World War II—and it may be that circumstances weren’t particularly favorable to him being celebrated by history.”

Hubbard had been thinking a lot about Dickerson, who died in 1986 at age 95. The centennial of Dickerson’s 1920 graduation was approaching, and the Law School was planning to celebrate; Hubbard had been working for months with Deputy Dean Richard McAdams and Professor from Practice Sharon Fairley, as well as a small group of students and staff. (What was originally supposed to be a two-day conference in April was rescheduled due to the pandemic. A virtual conference will be held Oct. 30, and the organizers hope to hold an in-person event on April 17, 2021.)

It wasn’t a simple undertaking: For someone lacking in widespread name recognition, there was an enormous amount to say about Earl Dickerson. His memory looms large in certain circles, among those with connections to him and some who are continuing his work. When he was alive, U.S. presidents and Chicago mayors and revered civil rights activists knew and respected him; one of Harold Washington’s first acts as Chicago mayor was to declare May 1, 1983, to be Earl B. Dickerson Day.

“When we think about the history of our city, Earl Dickerson was actually front and center on a lot of the important issues,” said Fairley, a criminal justice reform advocate and former federal prosecutor.

Fairley, JD’06, knew Dickerson’s name as a law student—most likely, she thinks, because she was a member of the Law School’s chapter of the Black Law Students Association, which is named for him. At the Law School, the bones of Dickerson’s story are familiar. He was a grandson of enslaved people who earned his JD here in 1920, a year after the 1919 race riots and almost three and a half decades before Brown v. Board of Education. And he argued Hansberry v. Lee, the 1940 Supreme Court case that opened up housing for African Americans in part of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood and set the stage for the end of racially restrictive covenants nationwide.

Dickerson’s portrait hangs in the Law School’s classroom wing, alongside photos of other pioneers like Nelson Willis, LLB’1918, the first African American to earn a UChicago law degree, and Sophonisba Breckinridge, JD’1904, the Law School’s first female graduate. In addition to the Earl B. Dickerson BLSA chapter, the Law School has an Earl B. Dickerson postgraduate fellowship, which is awarded each year to a promising legal scholar, and an Earl B. Dickerson student scholarship, which is given annually to a student who displays a commitment to social justice. Dickerson’s work is also discussed occasionally in classes.

For Hubbard, McAdams and Fairley, the anniversary of Dickerson’s graduation presented an opportunity to shine a brighter light on his accomplishments. The Law School and the broader Chicago community could consider the scope of his legacy together—his connection to Chicago’s South Side, the ways in which he combined business and law to advance civil rights, the bold vision that sometimes thwarted his political ambitions—and honor the man sometimes known as the “dean of Chicago’s Black lawyers.”

The two-day multidisciplinary event, they ultimately decided, would anchor a comprehensive Dickerson centennial—a yearlong tribute that would include a winter quarter class on the civil rights movement, funding for independent student research projects, displays of Dickerson photographs and speeches, and a variety of other lectures and events throughout 2020. Together, these pieces would offer not only a look back at history but a chance to reflect on the present.

“Earl Dickerson’s story is about persistence and tenacity, about not accepting the status quo—and his example is an opportunity to understand how leaders really make change in the world using the law,” Fairley said.

“Dickerson is someone who did so many different things,” said McAdams, the Bernard D. Meltzer Professor of Law, “that it’s hard to point to just one thing and say, ‘Well, we know him because of this.’”

Of course, if there was one thing, McAdams said, it would be the Hansberry case, which Dickerson not only argued but helped engineer. As the general counsel of Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, where he worked nearly his entire career, Dickerson had advocated for the mortgage loan that allowed Carl Hansberry (Lorraine’s father) to buy a house in a subdivision in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood—just blocks from the University of Chicago—despite the restrictive covenant intended to keep African Americans out.

Supreme Liberty (as it was then called) lent the money, Hansberry bought the property and moved in, and the Woodlawn Property Owners Association predictably fought the sale. The case ultimately landed before the U.S. Supreme Court, and Dickerson, representing Supreme Liberty, argued it. The Court’s ruling set the stage for the 1948 landmark case Shelley v. Kraemer, which put an end to restrictive covenants.

“It was impressive,” McAdams said. “A lot of lawyers work their whole careers and would love to have one case in front of the Supreme Court and would love to win that case.”

McAdams shook his head slightly.

“It’s just that it wasn’t the only thing he did,” he said. “Several things Dickerson did were equally amazing.”

—Excerpted from a story first published by the University of Chicago Law School. To learn more about Dickerson’s legacy, visit the Law School website or register for the virtual Earl B. Dickerson Centennial Conference on Oct. 30. The second part of the conference is planned for April 17, 2021, with hopes for safe in-person attendance.