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Dictionary of Virginia Biography


Bertha Louise Douglass (26 January 1895–29 February 1980), attorney, was born in Norfolk and was the daughter of John H. Douglass, who worked as a waiter and porter, and Margaret Anne Cornick Douglass, a laundress. She attended private schools in Norfolk and graduated in 1915 from Norfolk Mission College, a private school that educated many of the children of the city's African American professional families. Douglass began working in 1917 as a stenographer for John Eugene Diggs, the most prominent of Norfolk's small number of African American attorneys. She became a notary public in 1919 and three years later, while reading law in Diggs's office, enrolled in the American Correspondence School of Law, in Chicago. While engaged in study, she joined several local attorneys in staging an entertaining mock murder trial entitled Trial of a Beautiful Society Girl. After five attempts beginning in June 1924, Douglass passed the bar examination in December 1926, only six years after Virginia first allowed women to practice law. She was the second African American woman admitted to practice in the state. Lavinia Marian Fleming Poe, of Newport News, was the first, and in 1928 Inez Catherine Fields (later Scott), then living in Hampton, became the third. All three women remained active in the legal profession into the 1960s.

Douglass joined Diggs's law firm. During the 1930s the black attorneys in Norfolk and Portsmouth elected her president of the Norfolk County Bar Association. She served two terms (1940–1941 and 1941–1942) as Virginia vice president of the National Association of Women Lawyers and in 1946 sat on the executive committee of the Old Dominion Bar Association.

In 1941 Douglass was one of only about fifty-five African American women practicing law in the United States. She specialized in civil law, handled federal pension cases, and concentrated on her favorite branches of the law: real property, administration, and wills. As was the case with most other black attorneys before the 1960s, Douglass often practiced in chancery court where a judge rather than a jury decided cases. In Norfolk, as throughout the rest of the South, blacks were routinely barred from jury service, and black attorneys often had greater success in their private practice with nonjury trials. Moreover, women did not serve on trial juries in Virginia until the 1950s. The few African American women attorneys may have believed themselves more likely to prove successful before judges than before all-male, all-white juries.

Early in 1949 Douglass opened her own law office in partnership with the second African American woman from Norfolk to pass the state bar examination, Thelma Ione Diggs, a former schoolteacher and public health supervisor who was the niece of J. Eugene Diggs. Douglass and Diggs gained notice later that year when they successfully represented a woman in a contentious divorce case that garnered local attention because two prominent white men represented the husband. In 1952 they prevailed in an estate case against a respected white attorney, who appealed the ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Douglass and Diggs represented their client on appeal and won a unanimous opinion from the court on his behalf.

By 1944 Douglass had ventured into real estate as a broker. She operated the Eureka Public Service real estate company until at least 1974, sometimes by herself but usually in partnership. In 1949 Douglass became general counsel for the Norfolk Association of Real Estate Brokers, a trade association formed to promote home ownership among black families and to combat residential segregation and poor housing conditions. In 1951 African American real estate brokers organized the Virginia Association of Real Estate Brokers, with the firm of Douglass and Diggs among its legal counsel.

Like many other professional women in the first decades of the twentieth century, Douglass never married. While working as a stenographer and notary public, she joined the Clerical Women's Club of Norfolk, a group of twenty-one women who organized in 1922, partly in order to develop contacts with other professional women and the wives of prominent black professionals. Later Douglass became active in several community service organizations, the Professional Women's Club of the local Phyllis Wheatley branch of the Young Women's Christian Association, and several social clubs, as well as at Saint John's African Methodist Episcopal Church. During World War II, she volunteered with the all-black Norfolk Uptown Auxiliary of the Red Cross Motor Corps. The members trained women as automobile mechanics and assisted in transporting people, goods, and services for the armed forces and hospitals in the area.

As a member of the Negro Women's Democratic Club of Norfolk, Douglass took part in its 1945 campaign to encourage African American women to register and vote. She assisted women in paying poll taxes and in the often-difficult task of registering. Following the Supreme Court's second ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1955), Douglass endorsed a Norfolk committee's petition to the legislature and the governor to desegregate the schools. In 1961 she and other black professionals helped organize and supported sit-ins at three major department stores. In cooperation with the local and state branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and some sympathetic white leaders, they paved the way for the peaceful desegregation of the stores' tearooms.

Bertha Louise Douglass retired from practicing law late in the 1970s. Suffering from cancer, she died of a pulmonary embolism in a Norfolk hospital on 29 February 1980 and was buried in Calvary Cemetery, in Norfolk.


Sources Consulted:
Norfolk City Birth Register; Norfolk Mission College commencement program (1915), Norfolk Mission College Papers, Norfolk State University, Norfolk, Va; feature articles in Norfolk Journal and Guide, 25 Dec. 1926, 6 May 1939 (national ed.), both with portraits; Norfolk Journal and Guide, 23 Feb. 1929, 3 Nov. 1945 (home ed.), 28 Sept. 1946 (national ed.), 18 June 1949 (home ed.), 9 July 1949 (home ed.), 2 June 1951 (home ed.), 22 Mar. 1952 (home ed.), 17 May 1952 (Virginia ed.), 11 Feb. 1961 (home ed.); A. Sampson McFadden, in His Own Right and as Administrator, Etc. v. Nelson Robert McNorton (1952), Virginia Reports, 193:455–462; obituary in Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, 2 Mar. 1980, clipping at Norfolk Public Library and at Norfolk Virginian-Pilot News Library; funeral notice in Norfolk Ledger-Star, 4 Mar. 1980.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Cassandra L. Newby-Alexander.

How to cite this page:
Cassandra L. Newby-Alexander,"Bertha Louise Douglass (1895–1980)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2015 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Douglass_Bertha_Louise, accessed [today's date]).


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