The inspiring legacy of the 1st Black lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court of Virginia 110yrs ago

Stephen Nartey January 27, 2023
Joseph Thomas Newsome/Photo credit: the clio

He made headlines by being the first Black approved to argue cases before the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia (later Supreme Court of Virginia). He won a case before the Court in 1913. His case, Davis v Allen, challenged the deliberate attempt by authorities in Hampton to bar Black voters from exercising their voting rights.

Joseph Thomas Newsome was known for the high-profile criminal cases he pursued in Virginia, according to His father was an enslaved African. He was born in Sussex County and rose to become an influential civil rights activist, lawyer and journalist. He attended the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute in 1894. He furthered his education at the Howard University Law School where he received his law degree.

Newsome dedicated a significant aspect of his life to fighting racial segregation and discrimination as well as the dehumanizing conditions meted out to persons of African descent. According to the Library of Virginia, one of the ways he demonstrated against the status quo was his campaign against the “Lily-White” direction of the Republican Party in 1921. He vied for the office of the attorney general on the back of a “Lily Black” Virginia Republican ticket.

Many African Americans found inspiration through his advocacy and ventured into the legal profession. He was instrumental in the formation of the Warwick County Coloured Voters League, an entity that campaigned for community improvement, the construction of schools and voter registration.

It was through his advocacy that the first high school for African Americans was built in Newport News. Newsome was also the president of the Old Dominion Bar Association, a splinter association to the Virginia State Bar. His interest in the affairs of his community was next to none.

Aside from his legal practice, he took interest in writing for the Newport News Star from the late 1920s until the press house was sold to Norfolk Journal and Guide.  

At some point, he converted his residence into a community center and hosted civil rights campaigner Booker T. Washington. When Newsome passed away, the community held a special tribute service in recognition of his contributions to pushing the African-American cause. He dedicated four decades of his life doing this.

Thousands of friends and well-wishers attended his funeral in the city of Newport News. There were approximately three thousand people in attendance at his burial rites. There was a consensus for the local courthouse to be closed to business in remembrance of his passing.

His residence saw a massive facelift in the late 1980s and has since been turned into a community center and a museum for black history. Prior to this, the house was occupied by his only grandchild, who sold the building to the Newsome House Foundation, Inc.

The facility remained unoccupied for ten years leading to a group that began raising funds to renovate it until the city of Newport News took a decision on it. The residence was named as a museum and cultural center on February 17, 1991.

Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: January 27, 2023


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