University of South Carolina

USC professor pursues passions for law, history

Contact: Peggy Binette, peggy@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-7704

All we ask is equal rights. It’s the title of a website that details the history and contributions of African Americans who have served as state representatives, judges and lawmakers in South Carolina from Reconstruction to the present.

Created by Lewis Burke, a professor in the School of Law at the University of South Carolina, the website is a precursor to a book that Burke is writing on the history of black lawyers in South Carolina.

“The first African-American lawyers in South Carolina were admitted to the Bar and elected to the Legislature in 1868,” Burke said. “That fact alone is virtually unknown to most people in this state. More importantly, I feel that we owe it to the memory of these brave individuals that their record of service be accessible to anyone. A website seemed like the best way to accomplish that.”

Launched in late May, the “All we ask is equal rights” website is a work in progress. In addition to lists of officials, judges and lawyers, it features dozens of biographical sketches and photos.

Among those highlighted is William J. Whipper who, along with Jonathan Jasper and Robert Brown Elliott, was one of the first African Americans admitted to the S.C. Bar during Reconstruction, Burke said.

As a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention in 1868, Whipper helped ratify a constitution for South Carolina that established the state’s first public schools, guaranteed civil rights for all citizens and gave all men 21 and older the right to vote. Pretty revolutionary times, Burke said.

“Reconstruction was a gut-wrenching time for everyone,” he said. “It was the dragging of South Carolina into modern times. Whipper, Wright and Elliott were helping to construct a new society.” The site also features a biographical sketch of the late Judge Matthew Perry, whom Burke wrote about in a book titled “Matthew J. Perry: The Man, His Times and His Legacy,” which was published in 2004 by USC Press.

"From a historical perspective, Matthew Perry had a greater impact on this state than any other lawyer, white or black,” Burke said. “As the leading civil rights lawyer in South Carolina, his work transformed our society and made our state a better and more tolerant place to live for all the people.”

Burke, who directs the clinical legal education program and teaches courses on trial advocacy and alternative dispute resolution, said he was motivated to begin the project by frustration and a love of history.

“It was frustrating to me to hear people get South Carolina’s legal history wrong or to not be aware of the contributions made by black lawyers in our state,” Burke said. “I wanted them to know the correct history.”

Burke’s quest began in the 1990s when he was associate dean of USC’s law school and was often asked the name of the school’s first black graduate. His book, “At Freedom’s Door,” published by USC Press in 2000, helped answer the question. The first black graduate was Walter Raleigh, who finished in 1874.

He continued his research, and soon he had amassed a trove of history.

In 2007, he helped organize a conference on the subject of black congressmen and judges. The event prompted him to begin working on the website because he quickly recognized that it could become a resource for students, law professionals and others to learn about the history and legacy of African-American lawyers and lawmakers.

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Posted: 10/07/11 @ 10:00 AM | Updated: 10/24/12 @ 3:05 PM | Permalink