The legal establishment in Los Angeles was segregated in 1937 when African American attorney Walter L. Gordon Jr. pulled on a childhood connection to set up his new practice. The former newspaper carrier was given office space “three steps” from the pressroom of the California Eagle, a black weekly founded in 1879 by an escaped slave.
The newspaper’s location proved fortuitous. It was on Central Avenue, “the city’s black thoroughfare,” Gordon later said, and he benefited from being one of the first black lawyers to hang a shingle in the city’s African American community.
He kept his practice in the neighborhood for 65 years, defending the famous — jazz singer Billie Holiday was a steady client — and untold lesser-known names often facing criminal charges.
Gordon, who was 103, died April 16 at California Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles, his family announced.
He once estimated that there were only 30 African American lawyers in the state when he entered the profession, and he made a point of mentoring those who followed him.
When veteran civil rights lawyer Leo Branton Jr. arrived in Los Angeles in 1949 to practice, “there were no black law firms, only individual practitioners. The white law firms were not hiring black lawyers, and the L.A. County Bar Assn. had a ‘Caucasians only’ clause in its constitution.
“Young black lawyers had no place to go, had it not been for Walter Gordon. He was a mentor to almost every lawyer who came along during the first five years I was in practice. He made a tremendous contribution,” the 90-year-old Branton said.
In the early 1940s, Gordon represented dozens of railroad dining-car waiters whom the government wanted to penalize for not reporting their tips. When the tax-evasion case was settled, each porter was ordered to pay a $25 fine.
During the same era, he defended a group of black deputy sheriffs who made an off-duty arrest while armed and were prosecuted for carrying weapons.
“In those days, black deputies were not allowed to carry guns on or off duty,” Gordon said in 2008 in an L.A. County Bar Assn. publication. “In our argument we went back to the ancient common law of England where a sheriff could be punished for not carrying arms at all times because he would not be able to protect the king’s peace.” The deputies were exonerated.
Gordon successfully defended Holiday in the 1950s after she was accused of assaulting a white patron at a local nightclub who heckled her as she sang “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching. The judge deemed the audience member a troublemaker and threw out the case, Gordon later said.
“He had a heavy volume of cases. People would line up around the block,” retired L.A. County Superior Court Judge William C. Beverly said last week. “His personality was dynamic, plus he was good on the law. With that combination, he was unbeatable.”
Born June 22, 1908, in Santa Monica, Walter Lear Gordon Jr. was the only child of Walter Gordon and his wife, Vertner. His father delivered mail on horseback in South Pasadena and later went into real estate.
Growing up, Gordon sold papers outside meetings of the Los Angeles Forum, a civil rights organization. He later traced his interest in the law to the public speaking skills of the black attorneys he overheard there.
After graduating from high school, Gordon worked in a cargo ship’s mess, traveling through the Panama Canal, and lived in Boston for two years.
He attended USC for 18 months but in 1932 transferred to Ohio State. After a semester there, he was admitted to the university’s law school and received his law degree in 1936.
While establishing his practice, he began collecting photographs discarded by the California Eagle and eventually built an archive of nearly 800 images that he donated to UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library. The majority of the photographs are from the 1940s.
“As an attorney, he traveled between boundaries, but he felt it was important to document his stratum of society, the people who were college-trained and in the professions,” said Susan D. Anderson, curator of the library’s Los Angeles collection. “He knew if he didn’t devote himself to documenting these people, no one would remember it.”
In 1945, Gordon bought a lot across the street from the newspaper and built the office where he practiced into his early 90s.
When his parents were found killed in 1949 in their Highland Park home, “he basically stopped taking violent criminal-defense cases and moved to representing bookmakers and a less-violent clientele,” said Lorn S. Foster, a Pomona College professor who had extensively interviewed Gordon.
Married four times, Gordon had three children with his second wife, Anne, and a high-profile divorce from his third wife, Ethel Sissle, a showgirl previously married to composer Noble Sissle. Media coverage of their 1951 divorce noted that Gordon did not have to pay her alimony but had offered her "$200 a month for six months if she made no future reference to their life together.”
His fourth wife, Clara, died in 2006 after 50 years of marriage, and his daughter, Anne, died in 2010.
His son Walter L. Gordon III, an attorney, is married to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanchez-Gordon. He is also survived by another son, James; two grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
At 100, Gordon said he felt himself slowing down but still kept abreast of major legal decisions. And he said in the 2008 interview: “I make sure I catch ‘Judge Judy’ every day.”
Services will be held at 11 a.m. May 7 in the chapel at Angeles Rosedale Cemetery, 1831 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles.