Black History Month award named after Justice Thompson at Appellate Division ceremony
The Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department, held a Black History Month ceremony on Wednesday that also served as another memorial for the late Justice William C. Thompson, a pioneer politician and judge who fought in the segregated “Buffalo Soldiers” unit during WWII.
Thompson earned a Purple Heart for his time in the Buffalo Soldiers unit. After he returned home, he became a local politician — first as Brooklyn’s first black state senator and then as a member of City Council.
Thompson eventually gave up politics to become a judge. He was the first black administrative judge in the Brooklyn Supreme Court and then the first black judge to sit on the Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department.
Justice Sylvia Hinds-Radix, a friend of the late judge who helped to organize the event along with Justice Sylvia Ash and members of the Appellate Division, said that she had planned to honor Justice Thompson for BHM prior to his death and that he was really looking forward to it.
“He was very happy to have this program at the Appellate Division,” Hon. Judge Hinds-Radix said. “He told me that he was going to come today even if he needed an ambulance to get here.”
Unfortunately, Justice Thompson died on Christmas Eve, so a long list of his friends, family members and former colleagues showed up to honor him instead.
Former Mayor David Dinkins, the first and only black mayor in the history of New York City, and Attorney General Letitia James, the first black woman elected to a statewide position, were two of the attendees, along with the judge’s son, former mayoral candidate William Thompson Jr. and his sister Gail Thompson-Lake.
Thompson Jr. presented the inaugural Justice William Thompson Award to the recently retired Hon. L. Priscilla Hall, who also sat on the Appellate Division, Second Department, bench.
According to the speakers, Justice Thompson and Justice Hall were two people of the same mentality. They both “unboxed” themselves out of the odds posed by segregation and took their futures into their own hands.
“It takes a special kind of woman to refuse to give up or to be sidelined,” James said of Justice Hall. Judge Priscilla Hall “refused to take no for an answer” during a time when people of color, and in particular, women of color, were systemically capped out of rising professionally, James said.
The other speakers included Hon. Alan Scheinkman, the presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department; Hon. Cheryl Chambers; Hon. Plummer Lott; Hon. David Chidekel, president of the Brooklyn Bar Association; and Hon. Ruth Shillingford, president of the Judicial Friends Association; and Hon. Deborah Dowling, co-chairperson of the Brooklyn Courts’ Black History Month Committee.
In his speech, Justice Scheinkman talked about the history of Black History Month and how it started as “Negro History Week” in 1926. He explained that when it first started, BHM fell between the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 11 and the birthday of Frederick Douglass on Feb. 14.
“If a race has no history, then it has no worthwhile tradition,” said presiding Justice Scheinkman. “If we don’t remember our history, we don’t know where we came from, we don’t know how we got here, and we will certainly will have less regard going forward.”
Just as much of Justice Thompson’s career was galvanized by the racism he saw in the army and in New York City after he returned home from the war, Justice Hall recounted her experience with racism while living in Texas before she moved to Chicago and how it spurred her into action.
She also recalled a story of her father, who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama.
On Justice Thompson, Hall recalled that he was never bitter, and despite having lived through the segregation era he stuck to his belief that “if you treat people well they will treat you well.”
In her final thoughts before she accepted the award she said, “Thanks to you, [Justice Thompson], I am living the dream.”
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