March 11, 1911 – Birth of Edward Dudley, 1st US African American Ambassador & Civil Rights Attorney Who Helped Shape NAACP Legal Strategy Along with Thurgood Marshall

Edward Dudley was born on this day in history in Virginia. He first earned a degree in dentistry but then decided he preferred law, and earned a Bachelor of Laws in 1941 from St. John’s University in New York.

Following law school Dudley became active in civil rights activities, and was appointed to the New York Attorney General’s Office in 1942. In 1943, he was recruited by Thurgood Marshall, the Chief Legal Counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to become a Special Assistant Counsel.  Dudley served in that capacity between 1943 and 1945. He was the only other full-time lawyer besides Marshall.

PBS reports that in the 1940s, the NAACP concentrated on the “separate but equal” standard with respect to education:

The NAACP’s goal was to make segregation too expensive to maintain, recognizing that if courts actually required states to equalize their segregated institutions, the high financial costs of equalization would eventually put an end to segregated education.”

Dudley and Marshall began by filing lawsuits throughout the South seeking to equalize public school teachers’ salaries, since white teachers were paid more than Black teachers solely on the basis of race.

Edward R. Dudley (left) with Thurgood Marshall (right). Courtesy: Edward Dudley, Jr.

Dudley and Marshall also worked to secure Blacks’ voting rights. In 1944, the NAACP triumphed in Smith v. Allwright, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the white Democratic primary in Texas. As Dudley remembered, “If you couldn’t be part of the Democratic primary vote, then you weren’t part of the vote.”

In 1945, the NAACP granted Dudley a leave of absence to serve as counsel to the governor of the Virgin Islands. After nearly two years of service, Dudley returned to the mainland and the NAACP’s legal staff.

In 1948, the NAACP won the landmark case, Sipuel v. Board of Regents. Ada Sipuel had applied to the University of Oklahoma, the state’s only law school, but the university denied Sipuel’s admission because of her race. The Court ruled that Oklahoma had violated Sipuel’s constitutional rights, because there was no other institution in the state (i.e., for Blacks) offering a legal education. When the state created a segregated law school in the basement of the state capitol building, Dudley and Marshall returned to court to prove the inferiority of the segregated law school. The state relented, recognizing that it could not equalize its law schools, and the University of Oklahoma admitted Sipuel to its law school.
In 1948, President Truman appointed Dudley to serve as U.S. envoy and minister to Liberia. Black newspapers highlighted that Dudley’s appointment made him “the top paid of all of Uncle Sam’s colored personnel.” Truman soon elevated the Mission in Liberia to a full U.S. Embassy, and in turn, Dudley was promoted as well. He became the first Black ambassador in U.S. history.

Ambassador Edward R. Dudley

Ambassador Dudley left Liberia in 1953, returning to Harlem, the NAACP, and its Fight for Freedom Project (1953-1955).  In 1955 he received the first of a series of judicial appointments.  He was named a judge in the New York state domestic relations court (1955-1961). He then won a seat as the Manhattan Bureau President (1961-1965).  Upon winning the post he became the first black Chair of the New York Democratic Committee. Ambassador Dudley would serve in both posts until he was elected to the New York Supreme Court (1965).  Justice Dudley remained on the state’s high court until 1985.

After retiring in 1985, Ambassador Dudley received a number of honorary degrees. He died on February 8, 2005, one month before his 94th birthday. 


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