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Kanawha County family court judges honor influential black leaders, litigators

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Kanawha County family court judges held a presentation Thursday in honor of influential black litigators and leaders in West Virginia history.

The presentation, part of a continuing legal education series, was organized by county family court Judge Sharon Mullins and featured speakers Elliot Hicks, the Rev. Jeffery Chandler Woods, retired Kanawha County principal Betty Spencer and several others.

Those honored were civil rights attorney Herbert H. Henderson, Dr. Mildred Mitchell-Bateman, Dr. Mattie V. Lee, Dr. William J.L. Wallace, attorney Brown Hugo Payne, and Kanawha County's first black principal, Mary C. Snow.

Snow, born in Charleston in 1913, became principal of the first integrated school in the county's history, and kept that position until her retirement in the '80s. She taught as a substitute until her early 90s.

When Spencer became principal of another Kanawha County school, Snow took her under her wing and advised her every day.

"She was a trailblazer," Spencer said. "A very, very classy educator."

" 'When you go somewhere, you dress to impress,' " Spencer remembered Snow saying once. "We couldn't dress like Mary Snow."

Henderson served as the president of the West Virginia chapter of the National Association for Colored People and served as lead counsel in a West Virginia State Police lawsuit that eventually forced the agency to hire black officers.

Bateman, who died in late January, was a pioneer of mental illness treatment and the first black woman to be elected to a high-ranking state office - having served as state mental health commissioner in 1977.

Payne, another state civil rights attorney who often bears the affectionate "instigator" label, was instrumental in desegregating the Raleigh County school system.

In 1972, Payne helped re-establish the Mountain State Bar Association, headed by Franklin D. Cleckley, who would later serve on the state Supreme Court.

"The bottom line is that I came to know through him that I could sit wherever I chose and I could accomplish whatever I chose," Woods said of Payne.

Lee is credited with being the state's first black physician in 1911.

"She was black and a doctor before women could vote in this country," according to one newspaper article.

The Mattie V. Lee home was established in 1915 for young black women to live while working or attending school.

Wallace was a chemistry professor at West Virginia State University before becoming the institution's sixth president.

When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which eliminated segregation in the United States, Wallace confidently admitted that West Virginia State had been educating white students years before the decision.

Reach Zac Taylor at Zachary.Taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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