Minorities

Minorities

 

In Albany, as elsewhere in America, immigrants from Europe began to arrive to great numbers during the latter part of the 19th century, each new ethnic groups representing to a degree the young nation's latest "minority" population to the country's melting pot.

While Germans and Irish had resided in Albany since colonial times, their presence increased significantly during this period. Jews had established a community in the early part of the century, but many more settled after 1890. Immigrants from Poland and Italy arrived in Albany at the turn of the century.

Students attending Albany Law School reflected these demographic changes. Between 1868 and 1895, descendants of Dutch and English settlers sat in class with O'Briens, Nolans and McConnells, Nachtmans, Schultzes and Muhlfeders.

Perhaps one of the law school's earliest Jewish students was Myer Nussbaum from New York City, class of 1877, who became a prominent Albany judge and argued a bankruptcy case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1916.

In Nussbaum's class was the first Asian student to attend the law school, Kozu Senzaburo of Tokyo. Two years early, Senzaburo had been persuaded by David Murray, an American who had been appointed imperial superintendent of education to Japan, to study Western teaching methods at the New York State Normal School. Senzaburo enrolled in the law school after completing the course at the normal school. Returning to Japan in 1878, Senzaburo taught school and published widely on Western music.

Another early foreign student was Amara Cavalcanti of Rio de Janeiro, who entered the law school in 1881. He later became Brazil's ambassador to the United States and then chief justice of the Brazilian Superior Court.

Also in the class of 1881 was the first American Indian student, Alinton Telle, from Boggy Depot, Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Upon his return home, he practiced law and compiled the first code of laws for the Choctaw Nation.

It is not possible to tell from names alone in the Albany Law School alumni catalogues whether any students were of African descent. In the mid-1800s, education opportunities for blacks in Albany, as elsewhere in the country, were minimal at best.

James Campbell Matthews is the first alumnus that can be identified with certainty as African-American. He is also New York State’s first black judge. Before law school, he clerked at a local attorney’s office, then entered law school in 1868, graduating in 1870 at the age of 24. 

Only two years later Matthews argued against the city of Albany’s School Board, and won, forcing the city to desegregate the public schools. As the state’s most prominent African American, he lobbied for a bill that would protect the rights of black teachers, which the Governor, Grover Cleveland, signed into law. Two years later, Cleveland, who was then the U.S. president, nominated Matthews to succeed Frederick Douglass as Recorder of Deeds in Washington, but his nomination was blocked by Republican senators. Matthews went on to practice law in Albany for 44 years, elected Albany Recorder in 1898, where he stayed through two mayors.

Shortly after America's victory in 1899 in the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rican youths seeking higher education began to arrive in the country. The first in a wave of young men from the island to attend the law school was Pedro G. Amador of Camuy, class of 1902. 

Joining the next class were Jose Ramos Casellas from Manati and Pedro E. Ramirez of Mayaguez, a coastal village that would send several Puerto Rican students to Albany for their legal training. Class prophet Leopoldo Feliu of San German graduated in 1906, having distinguished himself by writing the best final thesis. 

A fellow classmate from the same town was Jose Lopez Acosta, who married Clarissa B. Pritchard, another law student. Jose Sabater, class of 1909, became a judge of the Superior Court in Puerto Rico. More than two dozen Puerto Ricans attended the school over a 20 year period during Dean J. Newton Fiero's (1895-1824) administration.

The character of the student body changed noticeably during and after World War I. Although there were a dwindling number of foreign students during Fiero's deanship as compared to earlier periods in the school's history, several young men from China were admitted shortly before the United States' involvement in World War I.

Edward Jun Chu and Wan Koi Lam, both of whom had attended Canton College, arrived in 1915 and graduated with the class of 1917. Hinting Wong, a resident of Hong Kong who had attended Kwang Chaw University, earned his degree a year later.

If female students and faculty through the Depression, World War II and the post-war boom were marginal or missing, blacks were close to invisible.

Between 1890, when Robert Douge graduated from the law school, and the 1950s, only one African-American attended: Peter Pryor, class of 1954, later a member of Albany Law's board of trustees, its 2001 gold medal winner for service to the school and former member of the New York State Board of Regents.

Pryor was among the top 10 in his graduating class, a class secretary, he served as a trustee for eight years and since as a trustee emeritus. After a long and successful law career, Pryor more recently has been associated with Filling in the Gaps in American History (FIGAH) Inc., an organization that researches and disseminates Information on people of African descent in the Americas who do not usually appear in textbooks.

Anthony V. Cardona, the presiding justice of the New York State Appellate Division, third department, since 1994, is a class of 1970 graduate and current trustee. The Vietnam War Navy veteran practiced law for 14 years before being named Albany County Family Court judge in 1985 and elected to the state Supreme Court in 1991. Cardona has served as president of the Council of Chief Judges of the American Bar Association.

During the administration of Dean Richard J. Bartlett (1979-1986), affirmative action was pursued more vigorously at the law school. Thirteen scholarships were made available in his first year. In three years, the incoming class had tripled to 30 the number of minorities.
Prior to that in the early 1970s, scholarships for minorities funded by the Howard and Bush Foundation attracted a handful of black students.

One of the era's minority law school graduates, Randolph F. Treece, class of 1976, is a U.S. magistrate Judge for the Northern District of New York. At the time of his appointment in 2001, he was general counsel for the state Comptroller's Office. Prior to that, he had been first deputy of the Capital Defender Office; and an assistant state's attorney general; a Rensselaer County assistant public defender.

Treece, who has also taught at Albany Law School, has been honored with the Center for Law and Justice 2002 Frederick Douglass Award; the 1999 Albany County Bar Association President's Award; the 1999 Albany Law School Distinguished Service Award; New York State Bar Association's Root/Stinson Award; New York Civil Liberties Roland Smith Award; NAACP Thurgood Marshall Award; and the 2000 Man of the Year Award from the Capital District Chapter of the Links. Treece has served as a trustee at Albany Law School and Siena College, and on the state Bar Foundation directors' board, serving as treasurer, and Albany County Bar Association. He is co-founder and president of the Capital District Black Bar Association.

In 1979, Olara Otunnu, an African lawyer who had been trained t Oxford and Harvard, agreed to commute to Albany once a week from New York City, where he served as a Ugandan diplomat to the United Nations. A political exile during the regime of Idi Amin, Otunnu taught a seminar, "International Protection of Human Rights." He remained at the school only one year.

Frank Fernandez, class of 1980 and a law school trustee, served as executive vice president, secretary and general counsel for The Home Depot, Inc., from 2001-2007, including overseeing a 75-attorney legal department through 48 mergers and acquisitions worth more than $8 billion.
In 1980, Anthony Baldwin became the first African-American professor in the school's history. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Baldwin had previously taught at North Carolina Central University School of Law. In Albany, he specialized in labor law and remained on the faculty for 10 years.
Henry Tseng, a graduate of Soochow University Law School and New York University Law School, was hired as librarian the same year. The author of several books and articles, Tseng also taught courses in copyright law, immigration and naturalization law and international law.

Alex Y. Seita, a specialist in commercial law and bankruptcy, became the first Asian-American professor in 1983. A respected educator in his area, Seita has continued to publish regularly as he nears 30 years of teaching at the law school.

New York State Sen. John L. Sampson, 19th District, which encompasses portions of his home boroughs of Brooklyn, class of 1991, was elected to the New York State Senate in 1996. During his law school studies, Sampson worked with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. After graduation, Sampson became a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society of New York. Sampson, who has been a member of the senate since 1996, is a law school trustee and is the first African-American to serve as senate Judiciary Committee chairman. Sampson is also chairman of the senate Ethics Committee and Administrative Regulations Review Commission and deputy majority leader for State/Federal Relations.

In 1991, John T. Baker was chosen the 13th dean of the law school. He was also the school's first African-American chief administrator. Born in 1941 in Louisville, Ky., Baker was an activist during the 1960s. He graduated from Fisk University and Howard University Law School in 1965. In the 1970s, he taught at Yale, New York University and Indiana University.

Baker organized in 1992 the law school's first Minority Law Day, which was designed to make the process of applying to less intimidating. After two years, Baker resigned his position but remained at the school for nearly a decade as a professor, teaching courses in corporate law and civil rights.
In 1993, Baker invited Richard D. Parsons, valedictorian in 1971, to deliver the Edward C. Sobota '79 Memorial Lecture. After a career in government, Parsons had become the CEO of the Dime Savings Bank of New York and was known for encouraging banks to invest in inner-city neighborhoods.
Parsons would later become in 2001 chairman and CEO of the media conglomerate Time Warner, and in 2009 became chairman of the financial services conglomerate, CitiGroup.

Barbara Cottrell, class of 1984, has been an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of New York since 1985. Cottrell previously served three years in the Army Medical Service Corps, stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., and assigned to the 5th Combat Support Hospital and the 44th Medical Brigade Headquarters.

Cottrell transferred to the Army Reserve to attend law school and was assigned to the 364th General Hospital in Albany until retirement, achieving the rank of major. While a law student, Cottrell was chairman of the Moot Court Board and elected to the National Moot Court honorary order of barristers. Cottrell has been a law school trustee for more than 10 years, served on the board of St. Peter's Hospital and her hometown's Youth Court Advisory Board.

John E. Higgins, class of 1989, a partner with Nixon Peabody, has also taught at the law school, bringing to the classroom his expertise in labor and employment law. Higgins was selected by peers as one of the "Best Lawyers in America" in the areas of labor and employment law for inclusion in the 2007 through 2010 editions of "The Best Lawyers in America." Higgins was recently named one of the top attorneys in corporate litigation in the corporate counsel edition of "Super Lawyers" (January/February 2010).

In 2009, Higgins was reappointed to serve a second three-year term as a member of the Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commission for the Third Judicial District. Also in 2009, the law school's Black Law Students Association honored Higgins with its first Award for Alumni Dedication, named after him for the work he has done over the years mentoring law students of color.

The national Black American Law Students Association (BALSA), which had established a law school chapter during the 1970s, has played an important role in minority recruitment during the past 30 years. In 1979, second -year student Karen Cochrane was elected to represent the northeast region of BALSA. In addition, to recruitment efforts, BALSA sponsored guest lecturers and offered tutoring to incoming students.

In the mid-1980s, Hispanics began to enroll in greater number. One 1984 graduate, Betty Lugo later made history when she formed the first Latina-owned law firm in New York City. The 2006 recipient of Albany Law's Kate Stoneman Award is a law school trustee.

Those initiatives to improve minority representation on the law school campus appear to have made progress. A 2008 study by Columbia Law School, on minority enrollments at three of the state's law schools found that Albany Law School reported 37 students, or 13.4 percent, of its 1993 entering class of 277 classified themselves as racial minorities. In 2008, 64 students, or 25 percent of its entering class of 255, were minorities.

Albany Law Today
Minority enrollment at Albany Law School constitutes over 22 percent of the student body, while women make up approximately 48 percent. Albany Law School is deeply committed to diversity as a broad principle that encompasses ethnic, racial, religious, age, sexual orientation, and veteran status.

In 2007, Albany Law School established a Diversity Affairs Office to further our welcoming and inclusive community, and to expand opportunities for under-represented minorities, both within the law school and in the broader legal profession.