Oral History of Judge Inez Smith Reid
August 23, 2005
This is the third interview of the Oral History of Judge Inez Smith Reid, Associate Judge
of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, as part of the Oral History Project of The
Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is Devarieste Curry of
The Curry Law Firm PLLC. The interview took place in Judge Reid’s Chambers at the Carl
Moultrie Courthouse, at 500 Indiana Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C.
Ms. Curry: Good morning, Judge Reid.
Judge Reid, let me ask you, before I actually get into the interview, is there
anything that you want to add to your answers from prior interviews?
Judge Reid: I want to update information about my paternal grandmother. I think I told you
my first name was her first name, Elsie. Her full name is Elsie Dickerson Smith
Chenault. She was married twice – once to Thornton Smith and another to a
Mr. Chenault, whom I don’t know. Thornton Smith, who would have been my
paternal grandfather, was actually a minister also in the Shiloh Baptist Church in
Lexington, Kentucky. And Elsie Dickerson Smith and Thornton Smith had
children, including my father, Sidney Randall Dickerson Smith, and the others
were James A. Smith, who was also a pastor, and Stanley A. Smith, who was an
organist also at Shiloh Baptist Church in Lexington, and one girl, Weynemo
Smith, who married a Mr. McCann, and she was the Shiloh choir president. I
wanted to identify the religious connection of that entire side of the family. I also
discovered that my godfather on my maternal side was Walter Brooks.
Ms. Curry: When you say you discovered it, you’ve been doing some research since the last
interviews, or you’ve looked over some family papers?
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Judge Reid: Yes. In particular, at the family reunion that Ijust attended, one of the family
members had a book called the Diamond Jubilee of the General Association of
Colored Baptists in Kentucky from 1943, and in there was mention of this family.
Do you have any sense of why there was such an emphasis on religion, or so
many of your ancestors went into the ministry? Was that at the time viewed as a
– certainly there was a spiritual dynamic to that, but was serving as a minister also
viewed as one of the primary leadership roles within the African American
community and perhaps also a way to obtain some economic independence?
Judge Reid: That’s true. Ministers, doctors, and teachers, those were the general popular .
professions for the black professional class.
Ms. Curry: Before we move to the next phase of your interview, I’d like to ask you a few
follow-up questions about the areas we covered during the last few sessions. One,
you mentioned that you and Matthew Whitehead overlapped one year at Tufts.
Do you know what Matthew did after his graduation from Tufts? Did you follow
Judge Reid: Matthew went on to law school, and then later in life when I was in practice, our
paths crossed again. After he finished law school, he then worked, as I recall, for
IBM, and he was a major litigator at IBM, and then he went on to form, or playa
major role, in a joint venture between Motorola and IBM. He was stationed in
Illinois. I also served as an attorney on a couple of family matters that he had,
including one litigation matter here in the Superior Court of the District of
Columbia. We had a very good association in my days of practice.
You also mentioned during one of the prior interviews that at Tufts, the Jewish
students were housed in a separate floor in the dormitory. My understanding is
that there was not a huge number of African Americans or Jewish students. Is
Judge Reid: That is very very true. One of the smallest dorms on the campus was Richardson
House, and it really was a large house, and as Ithink Iindicated before, the Jews
were’ located on the third floor of the house; my room was on the second floor of
the house. I did have many conversations with the Jewish students, as I recall,
primarily on the third floor, when I would go up and we would have these
discussions. I can’t recall exactly what we discussed, but my relationship with the
Jewish students was very amicable.
Other than your relationship with the Jewish students, was there generally a good
relationship between African American and Jewish students, or was there any
special effort made to form any type of alliance between those two groups?
Judge Reid: Not that I can recall. I had a personal sense that both of us, that is to say African
American community and Jewish community people were a rare quantity within
the Tufts community at the time. I don’t have proof of it, but I think that there
were quotas both on blacks and Jews at that time.
Let’s move now to talking about the activities or the events in this country in the
1950s and 1960s. Depending on who’s writing history, the civil rights movement
was sparked by one of two momentous events in 1955 – the death of Emmett Till
or the arrest of Rosa Parks and the subsequent Montgomery bus boycott, and in
the 1960s, that was a period of great social and political unrest and change in the
country. So before we talk about your legal career, I want to spend some time
talking about how this period might have shaped you. Do you in fact recall or
remember the murder of Emmett Till?
Judge Reid: Yes. In fact that was the talk of the black community at the time. It had a deep
psychological impact I think on the entire community and reminded people of all
the historic lynching that had unfolded in the South previously and the work of
Ida Wells Barnett in trying to prevent lynching of black people in the South.
Ms. Curry: You would have been either in your senior year of high school or a freshman in
college when that happened. Is that correct?
Judge Reid: Yes, I can’t recall which it was. I know I graduated from high school in 1955, I
can’t remember the month that he was killed.
In the Deep South, where the murder of Emmett Till occurred, because it was so
brutal, in fact, the effect on African Americans living within the Deep South was.
to close ranks and they had an even heightened sense offear, atleast from what I
have read about that, and they felt that they had to go to even greater lengths to
protect young African Americans. You, of course, were living in Washington,
D.C., at the time. Was there a sense within the African American community
here of a heightened fear or that the younger children or younger adults had to be
protected to a greater extent?
Judge Reid: I would say around the time that Emmett Till was killed that there was a
continuing sense that African Americans had to be careful. I don’t recall that
there was a real fear, and that may be because I guess I was not accustomed to
being afraid even though there were challenging times in which we lived, but
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there was a sense that one had to be cautious, especially a sense that African
American men and young boys had to be cautious because things could happen.
What other effect did either the Montgomery bus boycott, which also started in
1955, and/or the Emmett Till killing have on Washington, and specifically what I
mean is this: we know that across the Deep South the bus boycott or Till’s
murder galvanized African Americans to start agitating for their rights. Although
Washington is not the Deep South, it was still a very segregated city at that time.
Did either of these events embolden African Americans in Washington to become
activists or had Brown served as a catalyst for activism in Washington?
Judge Reid: I think even before Brown there were activities. The big thing in Washington, as
I recall, historically, was trying to desegregate Thompson’s restaurant. I can’t
remember the exact year in which that occurred, but there was a big push.
Would that have been with Mary Church Terrell?
I think it was. I think she was one of the players in that. But there was a big push
to try to open up the downtown area for blacks to make sure we could go into the
National Theatre, into the movie houses, and into the restaurants. So building on
that, when Brown v. Bd. of Education was decided, I think this community turned
to the schools and getting African American young men and women out to the
high schools and their neighborhoods. And at that time there was also movement
northward, in the northwest sections by African Americans. So the focus, as I
recall, was really on the schools and making sure that African Americans got to
go to some of the so-called better schools, even though that proved fleeting
because as the African Americans moved into the schools that were historically in
Division I, the Division I students began to move out to the suburbs. So Brown v.
Bd. of Education did playa role, but it was mainly in the desegregation of the
schools of Washington, D.C. And then the earlier impetus surrounding
Thompson’s restaurant I think served to try to integrate the other parts of
Washington. I remember Garfinkels in particular was a department store at which
blacks were not welcome to enter, and there was a push around that too, making
sure to get into all the department stores, not just some of those department stores.
And then certainly when Martin Luther King Jr. became active. That in particular
galvanized Washington blacks. And I recall once, in particular, when Martin
Luther King Jr. came to Howard University, to one of the graduations that I
attended, and I recall how much he was welcomed, and the kind of mesmerizing
speaker he actually was. So his presence, I think, in the Washington community
also helped to spur the movement for equal justice.
I’m aware of the efforts to desegregate the schools, but I was talking about the
activism to desegregate the city overall which you touched upon, and I’m aware
of the work of Mary Church Terrell, but from my knowledge of that, I know she
certainly led a lot of demonstrations, but I don’t sense from what I’ve found in my _
research that oftentimes she had a big following. Sometimes it seems that Mary
Church Terrell was one of a few people out here, and because of her efforts, of
course, she has been recognized, I’m sure you aware, that there is the Terrell
building which houses the Venable law firm now, and there is a big permanent
display in the lobby to recognize and honor her because of her work in the city to
desegregate. I believe it was Hechts and some other stores she was trying to
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desegregate. So I want to put in context just the overall activism, not just the
Judge Reid: You may not recall, but ministers also played a major role in trying to achieve a
sense of equality in the City of Washington. It was kind of a – I don’t know that
I’d call it a unique approach – but the approach was: education is a must, and
once you get your education, then your next goal is to lead. So it wasn’t as
though the movement here in Washington centered on this person or that person,
it was more pluralistic in the sense that a number of individuals were being
molded for leadership positions. So you wouldn’t see Ms. X out there, although
we had our Julius Hobsons and people of that sort, but the movement was more
around the talented tenth idea ofW.E.B. DuBois. It’s not just one or two people;
you’ve got to have a greater mass of leaders.
Ms. Curry: It seems like what you’re saying is that the general thought amongst the African
Americans in Washington was that there certainly was nothing wrong with
demonstrating, and that demonstrations have their place, but that one needed to be
prepared to take his or her rightful place in society and that education served as
the foundation from which you moved to everything else, so that when Martin
Luther King came through Washington and the leaders in Washington became
involved, they could do more than demonstrate, they could, in fact, help shape the
Judge Reid: That’s absolutely right. And there were influential figures like Mordecai Johnson,
James Nabrit, and Dr. Benjamin Mays would come through and speak. But
besides these influential figures, the community wanted to build with people who
had leadership capacity and who could take the movement, if you will, farther
because they were prepared to do so. They were well-educated. That was a
major drive of the community – education, plus you had to have some cultural
things. There were many concerts. Artists would come through and would
perform at the churches, and so forth. So getting a well-rounded person who
could actually perform, who was prepared to perform in a leadership capacity in
I believe Mary Church Terrell was very highly education, and I think her husband
was a Judge, Judge Terrell, is that not correct?
Yes, Robert Terrell. Terrell Law School.
That was a law school for African Americans only?
That’s right. Judge Haywood, for example, went to Robert Terrell’s law school.
Judge Haywood who served on the Superior Court?
You’ve mentioned Julius Hobson. My research of him is that he would have been
in the more radical wing, and more of the activist. Is that a correct perception?
Judge Reid: As I recall, and my memory has faded a bit, he played an early role in the school
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situation. In fact, I think there’s one case, it may be Hobson v. Hansen which he
initiated which helped to make sure the District of Columbia schools at least had
an opportunity to become desegregated and to continue on after Brown v. Bd. of
Education. So I think what happened to him is, as he started out in the
educational world and he saw other needs, and as he became impatient with the
progress and with the “tipping” phenomenon – in other words, you might have a
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school that was primarily white to begin with, but then it tipped as whites began
to move out of the community. Then, I think, he became frustrated and became
more to the Left.
Let’s talk a bit about the 1960s. By the 1960s the civil rights movement was in
full swing with Freedom Riders, sit-ins, demonstrations, and other acts of civil
disobedience. There were also protests against the Vietnam War. What was your
general reaction to the social and political activities of the 1960s?
That’s a very broad question: What was my reaction?
Well, break it into whatever segments that you need to. I want to know what you
thought about what was happening at the time, but I also want to know to what
extent you were involved in those activities. For example, part of what happened
in the 1960s was that Americans all across the country got an opportunity through
daily media coverage to see the disparity in the treatment of African Americans
and whites, de facto and de jour. You, of course, as an African American had
experienced some of those disparities. But as the events unfolded, were you
surprised at the extent to which those in power would go to maintain their
privileges of power?
Judge Reid: Let me put it this way. As I finished college, which would have been 1959, and
entered law school, which would have been in the fall of ’59 and continued on to
the 1960s, it became quite apparent that in the South in particular, there was a
push against integration of all kinds. That obviously had an impact, and it had a
spill-over impact into the New Haven community, and it led to some civil rights
activity in that community. So you almost got a force/counterforce-type situation
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where the force was desegregate; the counterforce was don’t desegregate, make
sure things stay as they were. And then that required another force. I can’t quite
explain it in an abstract sense, but clearly, as we went through school, we were
reading the newspapers, looking at the television, seeing the movement from the
pure civil rights movement into the Black Power movement and beyond, and also
the war years and the impact of the war years. There’s a book by Alvin Toffler
Future Shock, and that sums up for me a lot of what was happening. It was very
rapid. Historically, it might have been a decade, but as you move from day-today,
it was like living two years in one year because it was so much of a rapid
movement and a rapid change. And when you have people with dogs and with
hoses, and all of this is being shown on television – the dogs attacking black
people and hoses being turned on black people by white policemen – all of that
sets into motion a force. And it almost gets one into Franz Fanon’s theory of the
use of violence as kind of catharsis. And there’s an interrelationship between
what was happening in terms of the international setting with the colonial powers
and the movement against the colonial powers and what was happening here. So,
in other words, if you take the African continent, a number of the countries in that
continent became independent in the 1960s. That had a spillover effect on the
movement in this country because that hastened the time in which a number of
blacks were saying we’ve got to take a stand now; we can no longer wait; the
moment is here. So it was all in a sense interconnected, although things were
happening in different places of the globe and in different parts of the
United States. So things were swirling rather rapidly, and that’s why I say that
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it’s hard to dissect because things were coming in kind of a rush. We had the riots
here in Washington after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. That played a
major role in terms of the mobilization – that is to say, mobilization moving from
the civil rights movement to the Black Power movement and the reaction of the
white community to all of that. So it’s force/counterforce/counterreaction/
I know that asking your general reaction to the social and political activities of the
1960s is a broad question, and you’ve explained a bit about your reaction, but
you mentioned something which leads me to a follow-up question. You
mentioned the use of violence as a catharsis, but you reference that as someone
else’s theory. What I’d like to ask now is, do you see, or did you at the time see,
any role for violence? There’s always been this debate about Martin Luther King
vs. Malcolm X, before Malcolm X converted. Rap Brown, H. Rap Brown against
Martin Luther King. You were shaped in Washington, D.C., and talked about the
importance of education and using that as a foundation. What is your view on the
violence aspect of it?
Judge Reid: I’ve always been deeply committed to nonviolence, and that has never changed
throughout the course of my life. I’ve always perceived violence as morally
wrong. The only time that I can honestly say I perceive violence as possibly on
the other side of the coin, that is to say morally right, is with respect to World
War II and the atrocities committed on the Jewish people. Aside from that, I’ve
never believed in violence as a tool for anything.
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Your exception as to when violence may be morally right, may be, in your words,
a very narrow one. You limit it to World War II. Do you understand that there
may be others who have suffered very great wrongs, including some of the things
that are happening across the world today, where they may perceive that violence
as morally right? Or take the African Americans. What about the Civil War?
What about Emmett Till? And his murder was just one example. And let me just
reference: there is now an exhibit at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in
Baltimore that contains a separate section on lynching that is so emotionally
draining that one is not allowed down there without going through an interview.
So do you understand that African Americans could have viewed the cumulative
effects of what had happened to them as a reason for engaging in violence and in
viewing the violence as morally right?
Judge Reid: Intellectually, yes I can understand that. But your question is posed in terms of
my own personal views. Although I can understand it intellectually, personally I
don’t think even in that setting of Emmett Till that that violence would have been
the way to resort to it, to cure the problem. Let me try to explain what I mean. If
you look at World War II and the role of Germany in crushing Jewish people, the
apparatus of government was in the hands of evil people. If you look at the
United States as a whole, the apparatus of government was not in the hands of
people who were evil-minded to the extent that they wanted to crush the entire
African American population. Under those circumstances, right-thinking
Americans could have stepped in to preclude the violence that was going on. And
I think there were pockets within the United States that attempted to do just that,
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and I guess I don’t need to view the record historically, but just take one
institution that probably is not known to a great extent, and that’s the American
Missionary Association which was tied to the Congregational Christian Churches
historically. That institution played a m~jor role in trying to preclude the violence
that was being heaped on African Americans in the South through the form of
lynching; So in the context of a rational society, if you will, and I’m talking now
in terms of pockets of that society as well as a government which is not an evilminded
government, it’s possible to prevent or preclude that kind of violence.
And under those circumstances, I don’t think the violence would be justified.
My last question on this. Your interview will be very interesting for those reading
it, but the apparatus of a government of the South was in the hands of evil people,
and that apparatus was used for many years to crush and kill African Americans,
notwithstanding what missionaries were trying to do.
Judge Reid: But notice that I couched my thoughts in terms of the national government, and
what was possible within the context of a national government.
Ms. Curry: Thank you.
I think we won’t pursue the issue of violence versus nonviolence, except that
perhaps one day we’ll have a debate. I recall that I did ask you to participate in a
panel once, the discussion that the D.C. Bar had on the lawyer’s role in healing
the racial divide, and you were very eloquent on that, so maybe at some point it
would be very good for the D.C. Bar to put on a panel discussion on when
violence is morally right and when it isn’t, and you would be my very first person
I would come to ask you to participate on a panel on that.
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Judge Reid: Yes, it’s a very challenging subject area, and one that evokes a lot of passion and
Ms. Curry: Let’s get back to other aspects of the 1960s. I believe in discussing what
happened on your college campus and your law school campus, you certainly
implied, and tell me if I’m wrong, that there were no demonstrations on your
campuses. Is that a correct inference on my part?
Judge Reid: There were no demonstrations that I can recall on the Tufts campus. In law
school, some of us did demonstrate downtown in solidarity with the movement in
the South, making sure that stores in New Haven did not discriminate and that
everything was open in New Haven. So there were demonstrations in New
Ms. Curry: When you were in New Haven, would there have been stores that at that time
Judge Reid: There was some perception that everything might not have been open, that is just
one reason why we wanted to make sure that everything was open. And also to
use it as an ~ducational tool to let =people of New Haven know what was going
on in the South and that there were people in the northern areas who would
support the movement in the South.
Ms. Curry: How big was the demonstration? How many students, I should say, participated
Judge Reid: This is a movement that both students at Yale and community activists – I can’t
recall numbers. We had a nice-sized group.
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Ms. Curry: Of the events that happened in the 1960s – college demonstrations, assassinations,
war protests across the country, inter-city uprisings following the death of Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. – what for you was the most defining or the most
Judge Reid: I think the three assassinations – John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and
Robert Kennedy – gave one serious pause. When John F. Kennedy was
assassinated, I was actually in Africa and a next-door neighbor came and told me
that the president had been assassinated. And my reaction was “who?
Kasavubu?” Kasavubu then was the president of the Congo. And when she said
it was John F. Kennedy, naturally I was stunned. I was in the United States when
Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, and that just about snuffed the breath out of
me, and I recall at the time that my husband almost went berserk. I think he was
tom between tears and running out into the neighborhood and taking action. And
then the assassination of Robert Kennedy, this was a third blow. So I think those
three assassinations set into motion all kinds of forces within the United States –
the riots that occurred, the Black Power movement, the increased resistance, and
ultimately the counter-reaction. So I think I would look at those three
assassinations as defining moments in history.
You’ve talked a bit about your reaction to the news of President Kennedy’s
assassination. Let me ask you, before his death, had you followed his presidency
closely enough to form an opinion as to how you thought he was performing as a
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Judge Reid: In a certain respect, yes. I did not think either John Kennedy nor Robert Kennedy
did enough to advance the cause of blacks in the South or the North. I think they
discouraged the kind of passive resistance if you will, the civil disobedience
activities of Martin Luther King, Jr., and they would have preferred to have seen
fewer demonstrations in the South. I don’t know if you recall, but one of the
campaign slogans of John F. Kennedy was the equivalent of just the stroke of a
pen and people were waiting for him to stroke that pen over executive orders, to
ease discrimination in housing and a number of other areas, and he delayed that.
People were looking for the Civil Rights Act, and there was not that much of a
momentum on the part of the Kennedy brothers at that time for the Civil Rights
Act. So my perception ofthe Kennedy brothers while John F. Kennedy was alive
was that they were not doing as much as they could have been doing even though
they were in control of the apparatus of the national government.
In fact, isn’t Ms. Curry: it true that President Johnson did more to advance civil rights than
did John F. Kennedy?
Judge Reid: He worked actively. Yes, definitely, he worked actively to advance civil rights.
And it was strange because I think in the campaign, I think the perception of
blacks was that Kennedy would be more forthcoming and that the Democratic
Party ticket was weakened by the presence of Johnson. So I don’t think anyone
imagined that Johnson would come in and start pushing not only for the Civil
Rights Act but also the Great Society movement, trying to end poverty within the
Ms. Curry: Given what President Johnson did and actually accomplished, why do you think
there is still such a widely held view within the African American community,
and I think it is a matter of record, and that’s why I ask the question as I do, that
John F. Kennedy was the great savior and did so much to advance the cause of
Judge Reid: I think it was in part due to John F. Kennedy’s charisma. I think people really
believed and wanted to believe in John F. Kennedy. And I recall when I was in
Africa, actually when I was in Senegal in 1960 and then when I returned to Africa
to the Congo in 1963, 1964, Africans were thinking this man is going to do great
things, not only for your country – meaning the United States – but also for our
Continent – meaning Africa, so there was just the belief that someone who was as
charismatic and as handsome as John F. Kennedy could not go wrong in terms of
his policies toward the African American community, and the African
community. And I don’t think anyone sensed that Johnson would have done
anything. And in fact when Kennedy was assassinated, the reaction of a number
of Africans to whom I’ve talked was that Johnson was responsible because he
wanted to have the power, the presidency.
Ms. Curry: Do you think any African Americans held that view also?
I’m pretty sure they did.
Well Johnson certainly redeemed himself.
Did you ever have an opportunity to meet President Kennedy or attend any event
where he was appearing?
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Actually, John F. Kennedy was the speaker at the Yale commencement the year I
But I did not meet him personally.
Do you remember anything he said? Memorably?
No. [Laughter] All I remember is the day and how ecstatic I was that that day had
come when I was going to get my law school degree, and my twin brother was
going to get his law school degree. I remember the day, but I cannot tell you what
John F. Kennedy said. I mean, I can describe walking down with my cap in my
hand and gown over the arm getting ready to go to the main graduation before
going to the law school graduation. And I can recall being at the law school
graduation and getting my degree. But I cannot tell you what John F. Kennedy
That’s fair enough.
You talked about your reaction and the reaction of those around you to the
assassination of President Kennedy. Did his assassination change you in any
I don’t think it did. I mean there was the shock value of it, but because I was not
one who put my stock in John F. Kennedy.
What changes did you note in others around you, if any?
I think a lot of people actually grew more cynical and less trusting of government
Ms. Curry: We might have covered this, or you might have covered this in your responses to
other questions, but I want to ask you, do you have a view as to what President
Kennedy’s most enduring legacy is?
Judge Reid: I probably would say the Peace Corps. For me, it was the Peace Corps. I cannot
say that he has a legacy that would allow me to indicate that he did something
momentous in terms of the African American community, but I do think he did
something momentous in terms of creating the Peace Corps, allowing young
people, and even middle-aged and older people, to go out to different places in the
universe to assist them, internationally speaking. I think that for me was his
Ms. Curry: Judge Reid, you talked earlier about your reaction to Dr. Martin Luther King’s
death. Do you recall where you were and what you were doing when he was
Judge Reid: I was actually in New York City, and I was actually – it was not long after I had
returned from Africa – and I was actually with my husband in our living
accommodations at the time.
Ms. Curry: And you mentioned earlier that your husband wanted to – was tom as to whether
he should rush out and participate in some of the uprising, or take some other ,
action. Did you reach out, did you all reach out and call other people, or how did
you respond after the news really sunk in?
Judge Reid: I think all we did was to just try to collect ourselves, and then we, like other
people, watched the events unfold on the television. That was that evening.
Obviously after that, then we engaged in the activities that people within the
general community did.
You mentioned earlier, I believe, that you saw Dr. King at Howard University one
How many times did you have an opportunity to actually see him in person?
I heard him speak a number of times. I know I heard him speak at the Riverside
Church; I heard him speak at Carnegie Hall I believe it was, but several times I
actually heard, I was in his presence while he gave speeches.
Ms. Curry: You never really met him, had an opportunity to go up and engage in dialogue
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Judge Reid: I think that early time that I met him at Howard University, I think I shook his
hand, but I may be wrong, but that’s my recollection. Now, my twin brother of
course, when he made his Freedom Ride, did meet him.
“Always the leader,” as you said in your written remarks about him.
The nation, at least most of it, now celebrates Dr. King’s birth as a national
holiday. Having his birthday designated as a national holiday was quite
controversial and took a lot of effort and organizing. Do you have any views you
want to share about that struggle and the significance ofthat becoming a reality?
Judge Reid: I think certainly Martin Luther King, Jr. deserved a holiday. At the time there
was a movement to make it a holiday I’m not sure I appreciated the politics of the
moment because one had ‘to sit down and reflect on what might have been the
motives for getting the holiday. And that part of it I did not appreciate. I think
having a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is very important so long as people
remember why there is that holiday, and. by that I mean what Martin Luther King,
Jr. actually meant to the African American community and to the nation as a
whole, and there should be on that holiday either reflection or some activity which
would commemorate his existence and what he stood for, either in the
international setting in opposing war, or in the domestic setting in taking some
action to make life better for people of color and for people of lesser wealth.
Ms. Curry: What did you mean about what might have been the motive in getting a holiday,
that you just said in your answer.
Judge Reid: Politicians always have what they call a “goal,” or what I would call a “motive.”
Now, the motive in terms of the thrust for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday I
believe may well have been on the side of the ledger that said we’ve got to
appease our colored folks, and let’s give them a holiday and we’ll commemorate
Martin Luther King, Jr. In other words, I’m not sure that there was a genuine
feeling that Martin Luther King, Jr. had made considerable contributions to the
United States and the world, rather than political motivation, as I saw it at the
time, was to do something to appease the colored population.
Ms. Curry: What do you see as Dr. King’s most enduring legacy?
Judge Reid: I think his most enduring legacy was continuing to struggle against enormous
odds, both.domestically and in terms of his opposition to the Vietnam War. As
we progress, it may be that history will perceive his opposition to the
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Vietnam War as equally, ifnot more important, than his opposition to the
segregation of the South.
Many persons and groups that are staunchly against affirmative action and the use
of race and/or gender, conscious remedies to level the playing field, now readily
quote Dr. King’s call for a color-blind society in support of their efforts. Do you
think these people and groups misunderstand Dr. King’s message and his life’s
Judge Reid: I think that’s clearly possible. I think one has to look at Dr. King in the context of
the entire movement, and by that I mean the entire movement to include what was
happening with the Charles Hamilton Houstons, with the Thurgood Marshalls,
with the Constance Baker Motleys of the world. And at the same time that Martin
Luther King, Jr. was doing his demonstrations in the South, Constance Baker
Motley and the Legal Defense Fund were working to get James Meredith into the
University of Mississippi – not only to get him into the University of Mississippi,
but to get a commitment before he even entered the University of Mississippi that
some law school would take him and give him a legal education. So it’s not just
bringing Dr. King out of context, but as an integrated part of the entire movement.
You, of course, were in Washington, D.C., – well, actually, I don’t believe you
were in Washington when the uprising – you were in New York – when the
But certainly I watched it unfold on the television.
But you mentioned the uprising in Washington, D.C. What is your general
reaction to how that affected Washington, D.C., and any changes within the
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African American community and any changes within the political leaders of
Washington, and just Washington, D.C. , in general?
Judge Reid: Well, for me Washington has always been kind of a schizophrenic community, so
I think it affected different parts of the community differently. I mean, certainly
there was that pocket of the community that bemoaned the fact that people would
go out and destroy 14th Street. On the other hand, another pocket of the
community would say it was almost too late; that people woke up almost too late,
and it’s good that they destroyed the 14th Street corridor.
Ms. Curry: They destroyed their own neighborhood, though, didn’t they?
Judge Reid: Exactly. And some people would’ve thought that that was fine because it sent a
message. What I want to get across is that it’s almost impossible to look at
Washington, D.C., as a monolithic community, and particularly not the African
American community of Washington, D.C. There are just too many differences
within that community.
Ms. Curry: You said they have too many differences within the African American community
within Washington, D.C., and I think anybody who has lived here would certainly
recognize that. Has there ever been a time when all of the different factions and
the different groups of African Americans in Washington, D.C., have coalesced
for a single purpose?
Judge Reid: I can’t remember it when I was growing up. It was a divided community when I
was growing up, and I think it still remains a divided community today.
Ms. Curry: Judge Reid, I might very well have some additional questions about Washington
during that time, or certainly if you have anything you want to add at this time or
at a later point, feel free to do that. Is there anything you’d like to add at this
point about Washington, D.C., or your general reaction to Dr. King’s death?
I don’t think so at this point and time, but I might want to revisit it later on.
Okay. Let’s then move to your academic and legal career, beginning with your
early experience. Could you describe your experience in preparing for and taking
the Bar examination following law school?
After law school, I actually went to California. I accepted a Ford Foundation
fellowship to do intensive African studies in California, at UCLA, so I actually
went directly to – well not directly, but I went to UCLA in the fall, in September.
So you did not take the Bar examination upon graduating from law school.
No, and there was a simple reason for that. I was too tired to take the Bar exam in
July, but I did take it in February in California.
So you took the California Bar then.
My first Bar was the California Bar.
And how did you prepare for that?
I wanted to have time to prepare; and I wanted to do it in a reflective setting, so I
prepared while I was studying for my Master’s at UCLA, and I took a Bar review
course, of course, and that did a great deal to prepare me. But aside from the Bar
review course, and I tell every student I can get my hands on, as to a law student
who has to study for the Bar, that in addition to preparing your mind, you have to
prepare your body for the Bar examination. And so I was very fortunate because
one of the people I met at UCLA was a young student who actually lived in
California, and her family actually took me in at the time I was to take the Bar
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exam, and I lived with them on the days that I had to go for the Bar exam, and
that was very very helpful. Her father was a doctor, first of all. I didn’t need his
services, but it was comforting to be in his house, and she had a younger brother,
a little brother, and that was also relaxing, to be in that setting. So I was able to
not only prepare intellectually for the Bar exam, but to prepare my body to take
the exam. And at that time, it was a three-day exam, and it was all essay, so you
had to make sure your hand was going to get through the exam.
Now, you had always been a good student, so I suppose you had no apprehensions
about passing the Bar. That’s correct, right?
I think everybody has some apprehension, and this was the California Bar. And
California had the reputation of passing less than 50 percent of those who took the
Bar. In fact, the year that I took it, I think 39 percent passed the Bar. And as I
stood in the line the first day, I don’t think I have been around so many repeat
takers. Some people were on their fourth effort to get through the Bar. So, while
I can’t say that I had a great deal of apprehension, I was a little nervous.
But you did pass it.
Yes, I did pass it. And I got sworn in before I went to Africa.
Now, you mentioned that you enrolled in a Master’s program at UCLA, and I
believe it was in Political Science, in 1963, and you received a Ph.D. from
Columbia University in 1968. Let me ask, you reported that during your third
year at Yale, the Associate Dean called you and your brother into his office to tell
you that you should not expect to receive employment offers from law firms as
would other students. Was your decision to attend graduate school influenced by
the Dean’s comments, or by the early indoctrination from your family that you
should not stop until you have received a doctorate degree?
Judge Reid: Actually, it was triggered, in part, by one of the other things that the Associate
Dean had said is you can always count on a federal job. Well, I had applied for
the Bureau of Prisons, and I applied to become a clerk with a Juvenile Judge here
in Washington, D.C. I had my interview with the Bureau of Prisons, and at the
conclusion of that interview, the gentleman who conducted the interview just
turned to me and said ,”I’m sorry, but we just hired a male from Howard
University, and he needs the job more than you,” an implication being since I was
female, I didn’t need it because I wasn’t going to be the head of the household.
On the Juvenile clerkship, the Judge wrote and told me that the previous year he
had had a female, and it was the year for a male. So both of those fell through,
but fortunately I had, urn, anticipated that this might be the case, and I’d applied
for the Ford Foundation fellowship. And at that time, I wasn’t actually thinking
Ph.D., I was thinking about getting to Africa again. So the long-standing
indoctrination that we couldn’t stop until we got the Ph.D. was not in my mind at
that particular time. That came a little bit later.
Was your experience Ms. Curry: with the Department of Prisons your first experience with
Judge Reid: Yes, yes it was.
Ms. Curry: And how did that affect you?
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Judge Reid: Well, it made me more aware that this was going to be a double whammy – that I
not only had to overcome that hurtle, that is to say being a female, but also the
hurtle of being an African American.
Ms. Curry: Did the Dean’s comments have any other effect on you, other than pointing you in
the direction to look for something outside the legal community?
Judge Reid: Mostly, I thought it was rather odd that the Associate Dean would call us in to
begin with to say something like that. And this Associate Dean was a southern
gentleman, so I’m not sure that at the time I really appreciated it. I think he had
good motivation, that he wanted to alert us ahead of time, that we were going to
have to become more rigorous in our search for ajob than our fellow white
students. But, as I said, at the time I thought it was rather odd. And this is in
contrast to the Dean at Jackson College for Women at Tufts University who
seemed to pave the way and want me to pave the way, as opposed to saying you
can’t do this, or you can’t expect that this will happen. In other words, her view
was more of a positive one.
Ms. Curry: Did you share the Dean’s comments with Eleanor Holmes Norton, I believe who
was your roommate at the time, or had been your roommate.
I honestly don’t recall.
Can you recall what kinds of jobs the other women in your class accepted after
Actually, no, I don’t. I can’t recall that. Urn, one of the women in my class, of
course, went on to the Court of Appeals in Texas, the federal Court of Appeals,
but I can’t recall whether or not she went to a law firm right out of law school.
– 121 –
Ms. Curry: Is that Judge Dineen?
Judge Reid: Yes, Carolyn Dineen.
Ms. Curry: Yes, she was one of the Margaret Brent Award recipients at the ABA this year.
Judge Reid: Yes. Yes, she’s a good person.
Ms. Curry: She actually had some very interesting comments about the role of affirmative
action, and she said in her comments she couldn’t understand women who say
that they made it on their own and didn’t need affirmative action
[Laughter]. That sounds like Carolyn.
And she got a rousing round of applause from the audience for that. Of course,
the men had all kinds of opportunities open to them, being Yale law graduates. Is
The white men, yes. Yes, definitely. Oh yes.
Now, did your brother go to the Legal Defense Fund when he left Yale?
You’ve had quite a career in academia, beginning with your first job in 1963 after
receiving your Master’s, as a lecturer in Criminal Law at the School of Law and
Administration in Congo, Kinshasha. And can you pronounce for the record and
spell the French pronunciation of that school.
Judge Reid: Yes. The Ecole National De Droit D’Administration. And actually it was in, urn,
at that time Congo, Leopoldville, because Leopoldville was still the name of the
main city at that time.
How did you obtain that position?
– 122 –
Judge Reid: I mentioned earlier that I had a Ford Foundation fellowship and I went out to
UCLA to prepare to go to Africa. And, actually, I was offered a Ford Foundation
fellowship for the second year and I had tentatively decided to return to Senegal,
but then I can’t remember how I got wind of it, but I learned that there was an
opportunity to – I learned actually through Yale Law School that there was an
opportunity to go to Congo, Leopoldville, to work for the Ford Foundation and
the Congolese government, a joint contract to actually teach law and establish the
law library in Leopoldville; and I thought that would be a really exciting
opportunity, and rather than to just study the second year in Africa, I could
actually do something worthwhile that would benefit the Congolese government,
and that’s the opportunity that I see.
Ms. Curry: Describe your experience, including your experience of living in the Congo.
Judge Reid: It was an extremely dynamic and exciting experience It was like living two years
in one year. And I say that because the conditions were not that easy because
there was civil war going on in the Congo at the time that I was there. And I
guess the first shock I got was one of the young men who worked at the law
school came to me and he asked me to protect him because he feared for his life
from another ethnic group, and since I was in the setting of mainly Africans, this
came as somewhat of a shock to me that he feared bodily harm from another
ethnic group. Teaching at the law school was also a great challenge. The
Director of Studies at the law school was a Frenchman by the name of
Mr. Benac, and, of course, he did not think that any Americans should be teaching
in the law school, nor did he think that anyone should teach in the law school
– 123 –
whose first language was not Parisienne French, and of course my first language
is not Parisienne French.
Was he a Francophile?
Yes. So, therefore, I learned in the first few days that I would have to be orie step
ahead of this man or else he was going to be trouble, and I managed to stay a step
ahead of him throughout my year of teaching at the law school. So not only was
this Frenchman a challenge, but the students themselves were a challenge,
because you have to imagine that you’re in a country where the Belgians believed
in the need for civilizing mission, and virtually no education for the people. So
here comes independence, and now you’ve got to staff all of these positions, and
you have people who are not prepared to staff the positions. But I say that the
students were a challenge because they thought that by right they should have the
position of a magistrate, and they shouldn’t have to go through all of this
preparation. And my method of teaching was somewhat different because I was
not satisfied with just having them do things by rote, but I wanted to make sure
that they could think through the problems and think through some of the cases
with which they would be presented. So I forced them to do that thinking. And
eventually they caught on. The other thing that was a challenge was getting
through the roll call, with the names, learning how to pronounce all of the African
names. And then the other challenge was living within the context of a civil war.
And that at one point and time for quite a while we had a curfew from 6:00 p.m.
to 6:00 a.m. and you were not supposed to be on the street after 6:00 p.m. at night
until 6:00 a.m. the next morning. But if you had to get someone to the airport and
– 124 –
the plane didn’t leave until 9:00 at night, then of course you had to be on the street
after 6:00, and the trick there was not to stop at the stop signs.
Your explanations raised several questions for me. First, how did you stay a step
ahead of the Head of the school?
You would just have to anticipate what he would come and ask you for next, and
you would have to be prepared, and you had to be prepared ahead of time.
Because he was throwing challenges at me, and I knew that I would have to meet
those challenges. The first thing he challenged was my educational background.
He didn’t expect your degree from Yale as being …
[Laughter] That’s right, I mean we’re dealing with a Frenchman. You’re dealing
with a Frenchman who’s thoroughly committed to the notion ofthe civilizing
mission. But committed from the point of view that only French can properly
teach the civilization.
Were you the only American at the school?
No. No, there was another Mr. McAdams.
Were you the only African American?
He was African American. He dealt with things in his own style. And then we
had a couple of AID people who were attached to the law school. So there was
really a community of Americans in the Congo at the time.
And I suppose you taught in English?
No, no. I taught in French.
You taught in French?
I taught in French.
– 125 –
Well, when – I was thinking, perhaps given the attitude of the Head of the school
– but talk about your study of French then for a moment.
Actually I started taking French when I was in elementary school.
And I continued throughout college. And then the year that I was out at UCLA, I
did intensive work in French. And then when I got to Leopoldville, because I was
with Belgians, their French is a little bit different from French French. Because
it’s partly a Flemish country. For example, their word for “ninety” is a little bit
different from the French word for “ninety.” So I had to make sure I understood
how to speak the Belgian-type French also. So I was tutored when I arrived there
for about a month or so.
Ms. Curry: You mentioned the attitude of the students. Were they openly hostile to you?
Judge Reid: No, no. They were, urn — the word I would use is “intrigued.” And one of the
things that they thought they could do was to bribe their way through. For
example, I was offered diamonds for grades. And obviously I didn’t accept any
diamonds for grades. But I would say they were more intrigued, and I didn’t feel
any hostility whatsoever.
Ms. Curry: What were your living accommodations like in the Congo?
Judge Reid: I had good living accommodations. I was in an apartment house, and I had an
apartment in an apartment house. I mean it was nothing spectacular, but it was
Ms. Curry: You had running water?
Yeah, it was just like being in America. It was an apartment house in a middleclass
neighborhood. It was an international setting, truly an international setting.
There were Canadians, Greeks, French, Belgians. I should also say that my other
job in the Congo was to establish the Law Library, and I catalogued all of their
books and established a system. And that’s where my work in the Tufts College
Library and also in the New Haven Public Library came in.
How big was the law school?
It wasn’t that big. We had a building. Urn, I can’t remember the number of
students, but it was definitely not that big.
Have you kept in touch with anybody you either worked with or taught at that
Actually, there was a family, the Kabwasa family, and I actually sponsored them,
one of the brothers, to come to America to study. So I kept in touch periodically
with that family. And in fact, since I’ve been a Judge, the two brothers actually
came here to my chambers, and we talked for a while.
Now, for the record, can you spell their name?
From 1964 to 1976 you taught at several colleges and universities, including
Hunter College, Barnard College, Brooklyn College, City University of New
York, and the State University of New York at New Paltz. This meant that you
spent about 14 years in academia before entering the legal profession. Let’s talk a
bit about those experiences. Urn, first, why did you lecture at three different
universities, and how did the experiences differ?
Judge Reid: See, I started off at State University at New Paltz. When I came back from
Africa, I had not decided what I wanted to do next, and so I actually looked for a
job. And teaching at New Paltz opened up, so I actually lived in the New Paltz
community for about a year, and it was while I was there that the indoctrination to
finish the Ph.D. came home, so I decided that I would teach and get my Ph.D.
from – and I wanted to go to Columbia, so I applied to Columbia, and I was
accepted there – so then when I was accepted at Columbia, I knew I had to have a
means of supporting my way through that because I had to pay for my education
myself. So, I decided I would – actually I walked off the street – Hunter College
to see whether or not I could be hired there to lecture, and I was hired on the spot.
But this is a part of the City University system, so I started off at Hunter and then
I was at Lehman College, and then I actually was recruited to go to Brooklyn
College by one of the professors that I had at Columbia who was visiting but he
also taught predominantly at Brooklyn College.
Did you Ms. Curry: teach different subjects at these different schools, or was it in one general
Judge Reid: Oh well I had done two specialties. One was African politics, and the other was
the judicial process and constitutional law – political and civil liberties.
Ms. Curry: I apologize for this, but apparently I have the incorrect spelling of New Paltz. I
have P-I-a and you’re pronouncing it Pva-l-t-z?
Judge Reid: P-a-l-t-z.
Ms. Curry: Okay. Thank you. Urn, how much preparation time was required for your classes
in areas that you hadn’t taught in or worked in?
– 128 –
Judge Reid: There was a good deal of preparation. African Politics, I actually had to devise
the course, so that required quite a bit of preparation. The Constitutional Law &
Judicial Process was much easier because of my legal background, but even so, I
had to prepare well for those courses because it’s different teaching undergraduate
students from teaching law school students. So it required quite a bit of
preparation time, and in addition, I was doing the courses for the Ph.D. and
ultimately the thesis, the dissertation.
Ms. Curry: How did your teaching experiences shape you?
Judge Reid: Those were very important to me because it gave me an intellectual challenge, but
it also gave me the challenge of working with young students and molding young
minds, and I wanted to make sure that my students got off on a good footing. It
also required a great deal of counseling. You can imagine African American
students at predominantly white universities and the whole range of problems that
they would encounter, so a lot of my time was spent actually counseling African
Ms. Curry: But your classes were not predominantly African American at these colleges,
Judge Reid: No, no they were not. And actually I ended up counseling a number of white
students. And ironically, the more wealthy students who seemed to have greater
problems than the other students.
Problems adjusting? I mean, what was the nature of the counseling? Just
problems adjusting to school for these kids? Or what?
The African American students, it was a combination of adjusting to the
environment and also trying to figure out what they wanted to do for their careers.
I remember one young man who came to me and he said his mother had told him
that he was worthless and he would never amount to anything, so I worked long
and hard with him.
This was an African American student?
An African American male student. And he’s enjoying a very good career now.
Not in the legal field, but in the – I won’t say what field because his name would
So he is a person of national prominence?
He’s a person of more localized prominence, but he’s heard here in the District of
Columbia. The wealthy students, it was more as though they were lost, probably
because I don’t think their parents had enough time to spend with them. So part
of it was trying to instill self-confidence in some of those more wealthy students.
Have you followed any of your other students’ career paths? You mentioned the
one student who –
Judge Reid: Yes, I followed them, the career paths of a number of my students who are
lawyers, and who have other careers – professors, etc. But yeah, I’ve followed
the careers of a number of my students, and in fact, one of my former students is a
judge on the Superior Court here, urn, Thomas Motley, and I remember a
conversation I had with him years and years ago, he was with –
You taught … ?
– 130 –
Judge Reid: Yeah, I taught Thomas Motley. Yes, he was with a law firm, a major law firm
here in town. And I remember saying to him, “Thomas, you have to get out; you
have to go somewhere else.” And I suggested the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the
Corporation Counsel’s Office, because he had been spending his time working on
this one railroad case, motions for a railroad case. So he accepted the advice, and
he went with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and then ascended to the bench. Louis
Anthony was also one of my students. I don’t know if you know that, but-
Ms. Curry: The minister?
Judge Reid: The minister, yes. And he went to Harvard Law School too. I think there are few
people who know that. So there are a number of success stories with my students.
Very good. So you, uh, take a lot of pride in helping to shape them.
Judge Reid, how did the students respond to you as a woman professor?
I think a lot of the African American students were delighted, and even at
graduation time they wanted to be sure that their parents met me. The group that I
had the greatest difficulty with initially, and that’s been true throughout my
career, were white male students. The style that I use is more of a Socratic style,
and I think white male students had, and have, great difficulty being challenged
by an African American first, and second, an African American female. But after
about the first month, they get over it, and they’re able to relate well to me. But
it’s just that initial first month in which they don’t want to feel that they’ve been
embarrassed by an African American or an African American woman because
they didn’t know the answer.
Well how did you discern that they had problems with your, uh, style?
You can tell by body language and verbal puns in terms of responses.
What did you find most fulfilling about your teaching experience?
The intellectual challenge of it all, working with the students and overcoming any
obstacles that I encountered as a professor with my colleagues. For example, at
Barnard College, there was an economics professor to whom I spoke every time I
passed her. Never once did she speak to me. So, it’s just little episodes like that
that you have to get across and get the –
How long were you at Barnard? A year, I believe.
No, actually I went to Barnard, urn – when did I go to Barnard? It was shortly
after I finished, urn – I can’t remember exactly when it was, but it was more than
I think it was three years now that I’m looking at my follow-up question, I believe
you were there for three years. And you’re saying that, anyway, during the time
that you were there this woman professor never spoke to you.
Judge Reid: Never. Never spoke to me. Never spoke to me.
– 131 –
Ms. Curry: Judge Reid, I think what we will do is conclude the interview for today, and we
will continue the next time with a little bit about your academic career and then
we will move into your legal career.
Fine. Very good. Thank you.
Thank you very much.