Ollie May Cooper Award and Founders' Lecture Series
History of the Ollie May Cooper Award CeremonyPictures courtesy of J. Clay Smith, Esq. Ms. Ollie May Cooper was born in Bell, Tennessee, in Crockett County in 1887 and was brought to the District of Columbia by her parents at an early age. She attended the public schools in the District, and her professional training was obtained from the Howard University School of Law, from which she was graduated, magna com laude with an L.L.B. in 1921. Upon graduation from Howard Law School, Ms. Cooper served, among other positions, as Acting Secretary of the Howard University School of Law for three to four years. After successfully completing the Bar examination, the Committee of Examiners of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia certified her qualification for admission to the District of Columbia Bar. On Monday, October 11, 1926, at 9:30 a.m., John Paul Earnest, Chairman of the Committee of Examiners moved Ms. Cooper's admission to the Bar.
Thereafter, Ms. Cooper and Isadore Letcher entered into the private practice of law as partners in their own law firm. Ms. Cooper and Ms. Letcher share the unique distinction of being the first African-American women in the history of the United States of America to enter into the private practice of law as partners in a firm owned and operated by women. At that time there were approximately 1,500 female lawyers in the nation, of which fewer than 25 were African-American. Thus, a non-male law firm was unheard of; a law firm owned and operated by two African-American women was unthinkable. In the late 1920s, Ms. Cooper taught a one-hour course at the Howard Law School. She was a founder of the Epsilon Sigma Iota Legal Sorority. Retiring on May 31, 1961, Ms. Cooper Served Howard as a law clerk of the Law School's Law Department from 1918 to 1928, and then as secretary to at least 10 deans. In all, she served her alma mater for 43 years. She has touched the lives of numerous lawyers and students throughout the nation and globally.Pictures courtesy of J. Clay Smith, Esq. Well before the current era of equal rights for women, Ms. Cooper and other African-American women lawyers were visible and vocal for not only recognition of their own worth, but they stood side by side with African-American male lawyers for the general survival of the African-American Lawyer. Many of these persons deserve special recognition along with Ollie May Cooper: Cassandra E. Maxwell, of Orangeburg, south Carolina (the first African-American woman admitted to practice in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1925); Lucinda T. Thomas of Chicago, Illinois; R.P. Herndon of Atlanta Georgia; Georgia Jones Ellis of Chicago Illinois; Margaret A. Haywood of Washington, District of Columbia; Isadore Letcher of Washington, District of Columbia (believed to be the first African-American lawyer to be admitted to practice in the State of Michigan); Bessie J. Chase of Washington, District of Columbia; Leona Pouncey Thurman (President of the Southwest Bar Association); Jewell S. Rodgers LaFontant (the first African-American woman Deputy Solicitor General of the United States); and Julia Cooper Mack of Washington, District of Columbia (the first African-American woman to sit on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals), to name a few.
Ms. Cooper's service to the Bar dates back to nearly its inception. She served the Washington Bar Association in numerous capacities, including Vice President. In addition, Ms. Cooper was actively involved in the affairs of the National Bar Association for a number of years, serving as Assistant Secretary. She and other African-American women attorneys gave substantial time and service, and, until establishment of this award, had yet to be fully recognized for their part in the struggle and survival of African-American lawyers in this nation.
Pictures courtesy of J. Clay Smith, Esq. In honor of Ms. Cooper's accomplishments, and those of her esteemed counterparts, on August 4, 1978, J. Clay Smith, President of the Washington Bar Association, recommended to the Board of Directors, and the Board of Directors approved the creation of the annual Ollie May Cooper Award. This service award is presented annually to a member of the WBA who has given outstanding service to the Bar and whose leadership and organizational efforts have enhanced the image of the WBA and the legal community at-large.