First African American University of Chicago J.D. Graduate Honored

The University of Chicago Law School unveiled a portrait of Earl B. Dickerson, the first African American to earn a juris doctor in 1920.  Chicago artist, Shawn Michael Warren, was commissioned to paint the portrait by recommendation from Andre and Frances Guichard, the owners of Gallery Guichard in Bronzeville. Warren has designed murals in several cities. His murals include the 1921 Black Wall Street Massacre in Tulsa, OK, Major Taylor World’s Fastest in Indianapolis, IN, and Oprah Winfrey in Chicago’s West Loop.

Warren painted Dickerson standing in his home office, wearing a suit with a pocket square and a Kappa Alpha Psi lapel pin. The portrait of Dickerson is the first African American to be displayed in the building and the first portrait of someone who did not teach at the law school. Dickerson’s portrait joins the collection of portraits of Ernst Freund, James Parker Hall, Harry A. Kalven, Jr., Dean Edward Levi, Bernard Meltzer, and Soia Menschikoff.

Sharon Fairley, a graduate and Professor from Practice, said the event was an important moment. “I think we all understand that the images that are on the walls, as an educational institution, have an impact on how the people who work and study here. It was an important step for the law school,” says Fairley.

Members of the Chicago Alumni and Beta Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. were in attendance. In 1919, Dickerson founded the first alumni chapter, the Chicago Alumni and the Beta Chapter at the University of Illinois-Urbana, Champaign, in 1913. Dickerson served as the fraternity’s Fifth Grand Polemarch from 1925-1927.

Rufus Williams, radio personality for WVON 1690AM and a proud member of the Chicago Alumni Chapter, was in attendance to witness history. “I was filled with pride. The speeches that were given by the artist, dean, provost, and professors were so noteworthy of the contributions Earl Dickerson had made for Chicago and the country. His portrait residing at one of the top law schools in the world speaks volumes of what we are capable of doing. Dickerson has done so much and had a big impact on society, his legacy will forever be in the halls at the university. I am proud to be a black man and a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.,” says Williams.

Earl B. Dickerson, known as “the Dean of Black Lawyers,” was born in 1891 in Canton, MS. In 1907, Dickerson left the south and moved to Chicago at age 15.  Dickerson attended Laboratory School at the University of Chicago and later attended Evanston Academy on the campus of Northwestern University. Dickerson transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned his B.A. in 1913.

After graduation, Dickerson taught at Tuskegee University for a year. While pursuing his law degree, Dickerson was drafted into the Army. Dickerson served during World War I as a Lieutenant of the Infantry. Following the war, Dickerson returned to the University of Chicago Law School and earned his Juris Doctor degree, and was admitted to the Illinois Bar the same year. Dickerson was hired as general counsel and director at the Supreme Life Insurance Company of America in 1920, the first black life insurance company to operate in the North. Dickerson later became President and Chairman of the Board. Dickerson’s most famous case was Hansberry v. Lee (1940). Dickerson represented Carl Hansberry, the father of playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

Hansberry purchased property in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood that was governed by a race restrictive covenant. White neighbors in Hyde Park filed suit to keep the Hansberry’s from purchasing property in the neighborhood. Dickerson took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1941, the decision was struck down and ended restrictive real estate covenants in Hyde Park. The case was a huge victory for Dickerson.

Throughout Dickerson’s career, he helped organize the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, was Chicago City Council’s first black Democratic Alderman and President of the National Bar Association.  In April 1971, Dickerson was listed in Ebony magazine as one of the 100 most influential Black Americans. In 1975, Dickerson was honored at an NAACP Legal Defense Fund Dinner. Dickerson received honorary degrees from the University of Illinois and Northwestern University.

The Chicago Bar Association established the Dickerson Award held annually to recognize judges and lawyers whose careers at the bar emulate the courage and dedication of Dickerson. Earl B. Dickerson passed away on September 1, 1986, at age 95. Dickerson is buried at the historical Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, IL.


Tammy Gibson is a black history traveler and author. Find her on social media @SankofaTravelHr.




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