Spottswood William Robinson III (1916–1998)


Spottswood William Robinson III was a constitutional lawyer, legal scholar, and jurist who helped devise and execute the legal strategies that sped the demise of Jim Crow segregation in the 1940s and 1950s. With his legal partner, Oliver W. Hill, Robinson formed the South’s most significant grassroots legal team in combating segregated housing, education, and transportation during the era. In conjunction with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), he argued Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1954) before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case became one of five combined into the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) decision striking down segregated public schools. Robinson initiated Morgan v. Virginia (1946), a seminal, early victory in the fight to desegregate trains and buses, and he played a critical role in major cases undermining enforcement of restrictive covenants in residential property sales. He served as southeastern regional counsel for the LDF throughout the 1950s. After a three-year stint as dean of the Howard University School of Law, Robinson received a recess appointment by President Lyndon Johnson to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in January 1964, becoming the first African American to sit on that court. Two years later, Robinson was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, again breaking a racial barrier. He served on the circuit court for twenty-three years, including five year as chief judge. He took senior status on the court in 1989 and died at his home in Richmond in 1998.

Early Years

Childhood Photographs of Spottswood W. Robinson III

Robinson was born in Richmond on July 26, 1916, to Spottswood William Robinson Jr., a lawyer and real estate entrepreneur, and Inez Clements Robinson, a homemaker educated at Howard University. He had two younger sisters. Robinson’s grandfather, Spottswood William Robinson, was an enslaved man who, according to family lore, walked away from his owner’s farm in Spotsylvania County and became part of Richmond’s substantial prewar, free black population. Following emancipation, the elder Robinson opened a liquor store and bar at 19–21 North Eighteenth Street in Richmond, later converting it to a grocery store.

After graduating from Armstrong High School in June 1932, Robinson III entered Virginia Union University. When his father suffered a serious gallbladder attack at the start of his junior year, Robinson—then just eighteen—dropped out of school and took over the running of the family real estate business. He returned a year later but left without completing a degree to enter Howard University School of Law in the autumn of 1936.

On May 5, 1936, he married Marian Bernice Wilkerson at Saint Vincent de Paul, a Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. After a rocky academic start at Howard Law, Robinson rebounded, graduating in June 1939 with a grade-point average that went unsurpassed until 2010. While continuing to reside in Richmond, Robinson accepted a teaching fellowship at Howard later that year, advancing to instructor in 1941, assistant professor in 1943, and associate professor in 1946.

Early Law Practice

During the 1940s Robinson also became part of a thriving civil rights and general law practice in Richmond with partners Oliver W. Hill and Martin A. Martin. Stymied by a nervousness that seemed inexplicable given his stellar law school record, Robinson had delayed taking the Virginia bar exam. In June 1943, however, prompted by Hill’s pending induction into the U.S. Army, Robinson passed the bar and assumed leadership of the Hill law firm, taking over many of the older attorney’s duties as head of the legal staff of the Virginia State Conference of Branches of the NAACP. By the end of World War II (1939–1945), the firm had been established as Hill, Martin, and Robinson. The partnership lasted until 1955.

In the summer of 1944, Irene Morgan, a resident of Baltimore, asked Robinson and the NAACP to defend her after she was arrested in Saluda, Virginia, on July 16. Contrary to state law, she had refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Greyhound bus trip she had taken across state lines fromGloucester County to Baltimore. The LDF, guided in part by a legal memo written by Robinson, had been looking for a transportation test case based on the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause. Under the theory, that clause—assigning regulation of interstate travel to Congress—offered the best hope of chipping away at Jim Crow seating laws. If it could be shown that forcing black passengers to change seats as they traveled into the South interfered with interstate commerce, then a blow might be struck. Adopting the strategy, Robinson defended Morgan both in the local court and in the Virginia Supreme Court, losing as expected in both venues. When the U.S. Supreme Court took up the matter on March 27, 1946, Thurgood Marshall and William H. Hastie led the defense. Robinson sat at the counsel’s table, but his delay in passing the Virginia bar exam meant that he had not yet met longevity requirements for arguing before the Supreme Court.

Segregated Waiting Room at Bus Station

On June 3 the Supreme Court, with one dissenter, struck down the Virginia statute as it related to interstate travel. In a press release issued by the NAACP’s New York office, a jubilant Marshall proclaimed the victory “one of the most momentous decisions in the history of the country.” Within weeks, a more sober interpretation took hold as civil rights attorneys realized the limitations of the ruling. State statutes were invalidated, but nothing prevented private carriers from enforcing their own segregated seating requirements. Nonetheless, over time, Morgan v. Virginia proved to be a crucial victory on the path to desegregated seating. It signaled a growing willingness by the Supreme Court to elevate minority rights. It also prompted an early instance of collective, nonviolent protest, as a group of young men traveling in interracial pairs fanned out across the Upper South in the spring of 1947 to test the ruling. The work of those activists, including Bayard Rustin, became a model for the more widely remembered Freedom Riders of the early 1960s. Finally, the decision provided an important precedent in subsequent transportation cases, including Chance v. Lambeth. That far-reaching Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling held that private railway policies requiring black passengers to change seats when they crossed state lines created an undue burden under the Commerce Clause. Hill and Martin argued the case in court with Robinson assisting on the brief.

Hemmed In: ABC's of Race Restrictive Housing Covenants

In other legal matters, Robinson became recognized as one of the LDF’s leading experts on restrictive covenants in housing. Soon after Robinson had graduated from Howard Law, noted civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston tapped him to assist in a legal assault on such exclusionary practices in Washington, D.C. When the Supreme Court agreed to hear three related cases in the autumn of 1947, Robinson—who specialized in property law—was deeply involved in preparing the pleadings. Working with Houston on Hurd v. Hodge, a Washington-based case, he helped amass scores of articles, reports, and books to underscore the sociological and economic damage imposed by forced housing segregation. Robinson also was among a handful of attorneys preparing the appeal in McGhee v. Sipes, a Detroit case that was the only one of three to be handled solely by the LDF. Supreme Court rulings in the cases on May 3, 1948, banned enforcement of restrictive covenants by both state and federal courts.

School Equalization Campaign and Brown v. Board

Thurgood Marshall

In mid-1947 Robinson made a significant professional change, based on his mounting determination to help eradicate disparities in education for black and white children. At Marshall’s urging, he elected to take a leave of absence from Howard Law and devote himself almost full-time to what Marshall in an NAACP press release called “a full-scale legal attack on the inequalities in education in the State of Virginia.” Over the previous year, Robinson and his law partners already had filed a series of lawsuits demanding that the federal courts put an end to educational disparity in several Virginia localities, including King George, Gloucester, Pulaski, and Arlington Counties. Embarking on the new assignment with W. Lester Banks, executive secretary of the Virginia State Conference of Branches of the NAACP, Robinson crisscrossed the state investigating inequities in school facilities, transportation, and course offerings. He and other NAACP attorneys then initiated legal actions based on the findings. Preparing to be a star witness on education strategy at a national gathering of lawyers called by Marshall in June 1948, Robinson reported that he was involved with about sixty school cases in Virginia. Ultimately, those actions became an important underpinning for the LDF’s historic decision in June 1950 to make a full-bore push for desegregation of public schools. Frustrated by the delaying tactics and, at times, outright defiance of court equalization orders by white school officials in Virginia, Robinson was among those urging the tactical switch. “I just took the position that I wasn’t going to get involved in any more equalization cases; it was going to be segregation head on,” Robinson recalled in a 1989 interview. Later in 1950, Robinson was named southeastern regional counsel for the LDF.

When LDF lawyers descended on Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1951 to argue the first of the school desegregation cases, Briggs v. Elliott, Robinson was among the group. He played only a minor role in the courtroom arguments, but his presence appeared to bolster Marshall’s confidence. Describing the relationship of the two men in the book Simple Justice, an account of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, author Richard Kluger deemed Robinson as Marshall’s “most valuable all-around associate.” He attributed the strength of the relationship to Robinson’s “balanced judgment, scrupulous care, clarity of expression, and remarkable recall.”

Farmville School Activist

Robinson played a far more substantial role in another of thelawsuits that would eventually be combined into the Brown case: Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. That case began with a student walkout at the Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville on April 23, 1951. Led by sixteen-year-old Barbara Rose Johns, the demonstrators protested overcrowding and inferior conditions at the all-black school. Initially, Robinson and Hill were skeptical of embarking on a legal challenge to segregated schools in the small, rural county, but they agreed to meet with the students while passing through Farmville on their way to Pulaski County. The attorneys came away from that meeting so impressed with the determination of the students that they agreed to take the case, as long as the group’s parents backed not just a bid for an improved black school building but full desegregation of public education in the county. After securing that agreement, Robinson filed the Davis case on behalf of the Hill, Martin, and Robinson firm in federal district court in Richmond on May 23. Later that day, he joined Marshall and other NAACP activists on a train heading for South Carolina, where the Briggs trial would begin a few days later. When the Davis case reached trial stage the following February, Robinson and Hill joined LDF attorney Robert L. Carter in representing the students before a three-judge panel.

After losing before the three-judge panel, as expected, the Virginians appealed the decision. In the autumn of 1952, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Davis along with desegregation cases from three other states—Kansas, South Carolina, and Delaware—as well as a similar case from Washington, D.C., as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. A host of lawyers joined Marshall and the LDF in preparing for the courtroom challenge, but Marshall tapped Robinson to refine and perfect the briefs. When the court convened in December, Robinson argued the Virginia portion of the case, squaring off against Attorney General J. Lindsay Almond Jr. and T. Justin Moore, a prominent member of an established Richmond law firm. When the court delayed its decision, insisting on a second hearing in December 1953, Robinson once again played a central role in preparing the LDF briefs and again argued the Virginia portion of the case. Assigned the task of detailing the history of the Fourteenth Amendment as it related to public education, Robinson was the opening speaker at the hearing.

After months of preparation, Robinson left that hearing exhausted. Many years later in a questionnaire related to a judicial nomination, Robinson revealed a little-known fact. “For a period of several weeks in December 1953, and January 1954, I was resting at home in consequence of a chronic fatigue syndrome,” he wrote. In a letter to supporters, Marshall described his concern: “[Robinson] was under terrific pressure and he was in a horrible state in so far as his health was concerned … We cannot allow him to just kill himself.” Robinson’s reward came on May 17, 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” In a long career, he would have no day of greater vindication.

Brown‘s Aftermath

Farmville Students Protest School Closings

The jubilation of the black attorneys was not shared by Virginia’s white power structure. Over the next several years, Robinson, Hill, and their colleagues fought against a campaign of massive resistance to school desegregation that led to the closing of nine schools in Warren County, Charlottesville, and Norfolk. By the end of September 1958, about 12,700 students were displaced in the three localities. After back-to-back rulings by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and a three-judge federal panel on January 19, 1959, seventeen black students in Norfolk and four in Arlington entered previously all-white schools two weeks later. Throughout the period, Robinson and his colleagues maintained an exhausting schedule of court appearances as they oversaw scores of legal actions in numerous localities related to school desegregation. The list included Prince Edward County, where white officials resisted the Brown ruling until 1959 and then closed public schools for five years rather than submit to integration. Simultaneously, the attorneys were fighting a rearguard action to protect their own livelihoods. The General Assembly had passed a series of laws and empaneled two commissions with the express purpose of discrediting the NAACP lawyers and, if possible, demolishing the NAACP’s Virginia conference. Legal actions filed by Robinson, Hill, the NAACP, and the LDF eventually thwarted those efforts, but the last of the cases was not decided by the U.S. Supreme Court until January 14, 1963, in NAACP v. Button.

Jurist and Later Years

U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit

By 1963, Robinson was no longer engaged in the active practice of law. Three years earlier, Howard University had named him professor of law and dean of the law school. Robinson also had been named to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan panel investigating discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Nominated to that post by President John F. Kennedy, Robinson faced white southern opposition, including from both Virginia senators, Harry F. Byrd and A. Willis Robertson. The pair were on the losing side in a 73–17 confirmation vote. In the autumn of 1963, shortly before his assassination, Kennedy nominated Robinson to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. When Judiciary Committee Chair James O. Eastland of Mississippi refused to take up the nomination, newly installed President Lyndon B. Johnson made a recess appointment of Robinson in January 1964. Six months later, the Senate quietly affirmed his appointment. Two years later, Johnson nominated Robinson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, considered by many to be the nation’s second-most important court. Confirmed, he later served five years as chief judge, making him only the second African American to serve as chief judge of one of the nation’s eleven circuits. On the court, Robinson maintained a reputation for exhaustive research and scrupulous ethics. He held the record for the most footnotes ever in a federal appellate opinion, 676, and by repute refused even to jaywalk.

Spottswood W. Robinson III
Spottswood W. Robinson III, Wife, and Infant Daughter
Spottswood William Robinson III Fishing
Spottswood William Robinson III Fishing
Spottswood William Robinson III in his Home Workshop
Spottswood William Robinson III in his Home Workshop

In September 1989, Robinson took semi-retired status to care for his ailing wife. A woodworker, fisherman, and amateur architect in his spare time, he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at home in Richmond on October 11, 1998. He was survived by his wife and two children, Nina Robinson Govan and Spottswood W. Robinson IV. Robinson received honorary degrees from Howard University, Georgetown University, and the New York Law School. A Richmond courthouse for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, dedicated in 2008, was named for Judge Robinson and former District Court Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr.

July 26, 1916
Spottswood William Robinson III is born in Richmond to Inez Clements Robinson and Spottswood W. Robinson Jr.
June 10, 1932
Spottswood William Robinson III graduates from Armstrong High School in Richmond and enters Virginia Union University a few months later.
Autumn 1934
Spottswood William Robinson III drops out of Virginia Union University to run his father's real estate business because of the senior Robinson's ill health. He returns to school the following autumn.
May 5, 1936
Spottswood William Robinson III marries Marian Bernice Wilkerson at Saint Vincent de Paul church in Washington, D.C.
September 1936
Spottswood William Robinson III enters Howard University School of Law after completing three academic years at, but not graduating from, Virginia Union University.
Autumn 1939
Spottswood William Robinson III begins teaching at Howard University School of Law.
June 1939
Spottswood William Robinson III graduates from Howard University School of Law with a 93.5 academic average, reputed to be the highest in the law school's history.
Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood William Robinson III form a Richmond law firm; they are later joined by Martin A. Martin.
June 1943
Spottswood William Robinson III takes and passes the Virginia bar exam.
October 18, 1944
In Middlesex County Circuit Court, and with Spottswood William Robinson III as her attorney, Irene Morgan pleads guilty to resisting arrest. She is convicted of failing to yield her seat to a white passenger on an interstate bus. She refuses to pay the $10.
March 27, 1946
The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the case of Morgan v. Virginia. Thurgood Marshall and William H. Hastie lead the defense, with Spottswood William Robinson III sitting at the counsel's table.
June 3, 1946
In Morgan v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Virginia's law requiring racial segregation in interstate public conveyances.
Spottswood William Robinson III leaves the faculty of Howard University Law School to practice law full-time.
May 3, 1948
In a decision that consolidates the cases McGhee v. Sipes , Hurd v. Hodge, and Shelley v. Kraemer, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that restrictive covenants cannot be enforced in state and federal courts. Spottswood William Robinson III is among lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., contributing to cases.
June 1948
At a national gathering of lawyers, Spottswood William Robinson III reports that the Virginia effort to equalize schools has produced some sixty legal challenges.
June 1950
The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., agrees to push for desegregation of public schools, rather than school equalization. Spottswood William Robinson III is among those urging the change.
November 1950
Spottswood William Robinson III is named southeastern regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.
April 23, 1951
Under the leadership of Barbara Johns, fellow students at the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in the town of Farmville in Prince Edward County walk out of their school to protest the unequal conditions of their education as compared to those of the white students in nearby Farmville High School.
April 25, 1951
Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood William Robinson III, lawyers for the NAACP, arrive in Prince Edward County to help the students of Robert Russa Moton High School, who have gone on strike.
May 23, 1951
Spottswood William Robinson III files the suit Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia in federal court, challenging the constitutionality of segregated education in Prince Edward County schools on behalf of black students and their parents.
March 7, 1952
The U.S. District Court rules against the students of Robert Russa Moton High School in Prince Edward County, upholding the constitutionality of segregated public schools, but orders that the Black schools be made physically equal to the white schools.
December 9–11, 1952
U.S. Supreme Court hearings begin in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which is actually five cases from across the country bundled together, including the Virginia case of Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. Spottswood William Robinson III presents the Virginia portion of the case.
December 1953—January 1954:
Spottswood William Robinson III, in a state of exhaustion after his work onBrown v. Board of Education, convalesces at home.
December 7-9, 1953
The Supreme Court hears rearguments in Brown v. Board of Education. Once again, Spottswood William Robinson III plays a major role in preparing the briefs and argues the Virginia portion of the case.
May 17, 1954
The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that segregation in schools is unconstitutional, but fails to explain how quickly and in what manner desegregation is to be achieved. The decision leads to the Massive Resistance movement in Virginia.
September 1955
Following the death of his father, Spottswood William Robinson III enters solo practice in law, specializing in the real estate loan field. He continues his collaboration with Oliver Hill and Martin A. Martin on civil rights cases.
August 27, 1956
The Virginia General Assembly opens a special session aimed at devising a program of Massive Resistance to school desegregation, including a series of bills aimed at discrediting Spottswood William Robinson III, Oliver Hill, and other NAACP lawyers.
November 1956
The NAACP and its Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., file lawsuits in federal court to block the legislation aimed at Spottswood William Robinson III, Oliver Hill, and other NAACP lawyers from taking effect. The lawyers eventually win, but the cases are not fully resolved until 1963.
January 19, 1959
Both the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court overturn the decision of Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. to close schools in Front Royal, Charlottesville, and Norfolk.
Spottswood William Robinson III is named dean of the Howard University School of Law.
April 1961
President John F. Kennedy nominates Spottswood William Robinson III to a vacancy on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The Senate confirms on a 73—17 vote with both Virginia senators voting "no."
January 6, 1964
President Lyndon Johnson makes a recess appointment of Spottswood William Robinson III to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He is the first African American to sit on the court.
November 1966
Spottswood William Robinson III is elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, becoming that court's first African American member.
Spottswood William Robinson III serves as chief judge of the federal circuit court for Washington, D.C. He is the first of his race to fill that position and only the second African American to serve as chief judge of a federal circuit.
October 11, 1988
Spottswood William Robinson III dies at age eighty-two in Richmond.
October 2008
The Richmond courthouse of the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia is dedicated as the Spottswood W. Robinson III and Robert R. Merhige, Jr., Federal Courthouse.
  • Barnes, Catherine A. Journey from Jim Crow: The Desegregation of Southern Transit. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
  • Bonastia, Christopher. Southern Stalemate: Five Years Without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
  • Daugherity, Brian. “Keep on Keeping On,” in With All Deliberate Speed: Implementing Brown v. Board of Education, edited by Daugherity and Charles Bolton. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2008.
  • Edds, Margaret. We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson and the Legal Team That Dismantled Jim Crow. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018.
  • Hershman, James H. Jr. “A Rumbling in the Museum: The Opponents of Virginia’s Massive Resistance.” PhD diss., University of Virginia, 1978.
  • Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice. New York: Vintage Books, 1975.
  • Smith, Bob. They Closed Their Schools: Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1951–1964, 1965. Reprint, Farmville, Virginia: Martha E. Forrester Council of Women, 1996.
  • Smith, Larissa M. “A Civil Rights Vanguard: Black Attorneys and the NAACP in Virginia,” in From the Grassroots to the Supreme Court: Brown v. Board of Education and American Democracy, edited by Peter F. Lau. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2004.
  • Sullivan, Patricia. Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: New Press, 2009.
  • Sweeney, James R., editor. Race, Reason, and Massive Resistance: The Diary of David J. Mays, 1954–1959. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008.
  • Titus, Jill. Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
  • Tushnet, Mark V. Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1956-1961. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Vose, Clement. Caucasians Only: The Supreme Court, the NAACP, and the Restrictive Covenant Cases. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.
  • Wallenstein, Peter. Blue Laws and Black Codes: Conflict, Courts, and Change in Twentieth-Century Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.
APA Citation:
Edds, Margaret. Spottswood William Robinson III (1916–1998). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/robinson-spottswood-william-iii-1916-1998.
MLA Citation:
Edds, Margaret. "Spottswood William Robinson III (1916–1998)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2023, May 17
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