The evolution of J. L. Turner Legal Association (JLTLA) in Dallas County, Texas commenced when the first African-American, W.E. WILEY, began to practice law in this county in 1886.
In 1896, the year of the infamous decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), J.L. Turner, Sr. began to practice law in the City of Dallas. Mr. Turner was treated with utterly disrespect during that period, as you can well imagine.
Mr. Turner, a native of Dallas, was born on July 3, 1869, on a farm near Inwood Road in far North Dallas. After Mr. Turner graduated from Kent Law School in Chicago, Illinois, he began practicing law in Dallas, Texas. Although faced with obstacles due solely to his race, Mr. Turner became known for his expertise in the fields of probate and real estate law. His cases were placed at the end of the docket. He was called “boy” and other disrespectful names by judges and lawyers.
Mr. Turner, because of his race could not become a member in the white legal organizations of the private bar. However, the actions by members of the majority bar and the actions of the judges did not dissuade Mr. Turner. He practiced law in Dallas until his death in 1951.
As the years passed, more and more African-American Lawyers came to Dallas County. Such lawyers as C.W. Asberry, L.A. Bedford, Jr., C.B. Bunkley, Jr., W.J. Durham, Kenneth F. Holbert, D.B. Mason, Robert Rice, L. Clayton River, U. Simpson Tate, and Romeo Williams. J.L. Turner, Jr. graduated from Kent Law School, the same law school his father attended and returned to Dallas to practice law.
Although all of these individuals had law degrees not all of them practice law. Some of these law school graduates became great educators and other were involved in business.
In the late forties and early fifties, African-American lawyers were practicing in all areas of the law. There were a number of issues effecting African-American lawyers during these times.
The most crucial issues effecting African-American lawyers in Dallas in the late forties and early fifties were receiving fair treatment from judges. The African-American Lawyers stressed being well prepared, protecting the record in order to appeal their cases, if necessary.
In order to address these issues, African-American lawyers practicing in Dallas met on May 4, 1952. The lawyers present at this meeting were C.W. Asberry, L.A. Bedford, Jr., C.B. Bunkley, Jr., W.J. Durham, Kenneth F. Holbert, D.B. Mason, Robert Rice, L. Clayton River, U. Simpson Tate, J.L. Turner, Jr. and Romeo Williams.
At the conclusion of the meeting the following actions had been taken. The naming of the organization, election of officers and the purpose of the organization. The organization would be called the Barristers’ Club. The organization was to meet monthly. At each meeting a different area of law would be discussed. Further, the group decided to use the legal venue to dismantle all vestiges of racial segregation as it effected the African-American community.
The lawyers at this meeting took the objective to dismantle segregation very serious. During the forties, fifties and sixties the members who attended this meeting were lead counsel on every important racial discrimination case in Texas. W.J. DURHAM was the best known of these lawyers. He was lead counsel on the case of Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944), where the United States Supreme Court held “all white Democratic Primaries in Texas were unconstitutional.” Further, Mr. Durham was lead counsel in Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950), 210 S.W. 2d 442 (1947), where the United States Supreme Court held “the failure to admit Mr. Sweatt to the School of Law at the University of Texas solely because of his race was unconstitutional.” All African American Lawyers from all over the State of Texas would consult with Mr. Durham on racial discrimination lawsuits who was the recognized expert in this area of law during that era.
The involvement of African-American lawyers in Dallas in the forefront of dismantling all vestiges of racial discrimination in Texas and the nation was the basis for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund locating its Southwest Region Office in Dallas in the early fifties. U. Simpson Tate, an original member of JLTLA was in charge of the office. The Southwest Region Office of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was in charge of cases in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.
In 1955, W.J. Durham, C.B. Bunkley, Jr., L.A. Bedford, Jr., Kenneth F. Holbert, U.S. Tate and J.L. Turner, Jr., all of whom was at the first meeting of African-AmericanLawyers in Dallas, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Albert Bell, to integrate the Dallas Independent School District. In this suit, Robert L. Carr represented the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall represented the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. The style of the case was Albert Bell, et al v. Dr. Edwin L. Rippy, President of the Dallas Independent School District Board. As of 1999, the federal courts retains supervisory jurisdiction of the Dallas Independent School District as a results of this lawsuit.
In 1956, the group voted to change the name of the organization from the Barristers’ Club to J.L. Turner Legal Association. The name change was to honor Mr. Turner, Sr., who had practiced law in Dallas for such a long time and mentored the African-American lawyers who came to Dallas to practice law.
When JLTLA was established in Dallas, there was not an African-American legal organization in Ft. Worth. At the time JLTLA was established, one African-American Lawyer, L. Clifford Davis was practicing law in Ft. Worth. Mr. Davis became an active member of JLTLA and participated in all of the organization’s events. There after a second African-American Lawyer began to practice law in Ft. Worth. Mr. Davis encourage him to become a member in JLTLA and they would ride together from Ft. Worth to attend the monthly meeting of JLTLA. They remained members until enough African-American Lawyers were practicing in Ft. Worth to establish an African-American bar association in Ft. Worth.
In the early 1960’s, the population of African-American Lawyers in Dallas increased. This group of young lawyers included E. Brice Cunningham and Joseph Lockridge, the first African-American elected to the state legislature from Dallas County.
In the late sixties and early seventies another group of young lawyers began to practice law in Dallas and began to meet and re-energize JLTLA. This group of lawyers included Berlaind Brashear, James Hopkins, Sam Hudson, Walter Irvin, LaWanda Lacy and Cleo Steele. All of these began their law careers with Dallas Legal Services. This group met with Mr. Turner, Jr., who was still the president of the organization and other members of the organization, including Mr. Bedford, Mr. Bunkley, Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Lockridge.
In 1972, the group elected Cleo Steele as president. One of President Steele’s goal was to incorporate J.L. Turner Legal Association. This goal was accomplished during the administration of Jasper Rowe. In 1975, J.L. Turner Legal Association was incorporated as a professional association and issued a charter by the State of Texas. Also during the administration of Mr. Rowe, the National Bar Association (NBA) awarded its 1980 Annual Convention to be hosted by JLTLA in Dallas, Texas. Sam Biscoe was the president of JLTLA during the year of the NBA Annual Convention in Dallas.
In 1981, under the leadership of Lorenzo Brown, the organization voted to award scholarships to law students from the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex. The main source of funds for the scholarship would be an Annual Scholarship and Awards Banquet. President Brown appointed a banquet committee and a scholarship committee to provide leadership for this new initiative.
The Banquet Committee’s task was to plan the banquet and develop new sources of revenue to fund the scholarships. The Scholarship Committee’s task was to draft an application, establish criteria for selecting the students to be awarded the scholarships and the number of scholarships to be awarded each year.
The first scholarship was awarded by JLTLA at its first Scholarship and Awards Banquet in 1982 during the President’s Brown second term.
In 1986, the organization voted that elected officers’ would serve a fiscal year term instead of a calendar year term. The change from a calendar year term to a fiscal year term was to coincide with the term served by officers of the NBA. The officers elected to serve for the 1987 calendar year serve for a term of eighteen (18) months.
In 1987, the organization voted to name the scholarships awarded by JLTLA the Fred Finch, Jr. Scholarship to honor the memory of a well respected lawyer and businessman in the Dallas Community. Also in 1987, Walter L. Sutton, Jr., became the first member of JLTLA to serve as President of the National Bar Association.
The NBA annual meetings began the last Saturday of July of each year. In 1992, the membership realized that if JLTLA officers served a fiscal year term, instead of a calendar year the outgoing president rather than the incoming president would be attending the annual meeting as a voting delegate for JLTLA. Therefore, the membership voted to change the term of officers’ served to a calendar year instead of a fiscal year. The officers elected to serve during the 1993 fiscal year, served eighteen (18) months to restore the term of office to a calendar year.
In 1996, the membership of JLTLA voted to establish a non-profit foundation. The name of the Foundation established was the J.L. Turner Legal Association Foundation. The main purpose of the foundation was to explore obtaining corporate and other source of funding for the Annual Scholarship and Awards Banquet. The Foundation would also sponsor legal seminars for lawyers and education forums for the community.
The Foundation is a 501(c)(3) federally tax exempt non-profit which continues to this day to raise tax deductible contributions to fund legal scholarships, pipeline programs for pre-law students, educational workshops, pro bono legal services and other charitable endeavors benefiting the African-American community in Dallas-Fort Worth. The Annual Scholarship and Awards Gala is currently the Foundation’s signature fundraising event at which the Foundation awards thousands of dollars in merit and need-based scholarships from donations made to and collected by Foundation and at which JLTLA also presents awards to distinguished lawyers, jurists and community servants selected by its board of directors.