CINCINNATI - To say the chips were stacked against William McClain as he started life would be a gross understatement.
Born 100 years ago – on Jan. 11, 1913 – in the hardscrabble town of Sandford, N.C., he was an African-American in an era when people with dark skin often were denied basic freedoms like living or eating wherever they wanted and associating with whomever they chose.
McClain was the son of a 14-year-old unmarried girl. His grandmother raised him alongside his mother for most of his childhood.
Despite the meager beginnings, McClain not only survived but, in time, thrived. Moving to Springfield, Ohio, as a young child, McClain was determined to forge a new life for himself.
As the boy grew into a man, McClain repeatedly exceeded everyone’s expectations. Whether it was by getting good grades in his mostly white classes at elementary school, winning a scholarship to attend Wittenberg University or continuing his education at the University of Michigan Law School, McClain credits ambition – not bravery – for his upward climb.
“I knew that if I wanted the good life, I had to work hard,” he once told a colleague.
By anyone’s standards, McClain succeeded wildly. He became a practicing lawyer in 1938. After serving as a judge advocate general in the Army during World War II, McClain came to Cincinnati where he was hired as an assistant city solicitor.
In time, McClain would be promoted and become Cincinnati’s first black city solicitor (1963-72); a member of the prestigious Keating Muething & Klekamp law firm (1972-73); become the first black judge to serve on the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court (1975); and serve as a judge and civil trial referee in Hamilton County Municipal Court (1977-80).
His example would inspire several generations of African-American men and women in the Queen City, many of whom went on to careers in law, business or politics thanks, in part, to sage advice or kind words from McClain.
Some of the people who drew courage and hope from McClain will help him celebrate his 100th birthday on Friday.
'An extraordinary role model'
"What an extraordinary role model Judge McClain has been for me,” said Municipal Court Judge Tyrone Yates. “He is a civic and social lion here and nationally.”
Yates, a former Cincinnati city councilman and state representative, first met McClain when he was a fifth-grader at Cincinnati’s Frederick Douglass Elementary School in 1965. McClain spoke at a school assembly, admonishing the students to study hard and strive for excellence.
A few years later, in 1971, McClain administered the oath of office for “boy mayor” to high school student Yates, who was participating in a youth government program.
“I credit Judge McClain for inspiring my career in public service and law,” Yates said. “He has continued to be an excellent role model and adviser to me over the next five decades as a jurist and attorney.”
Yates isn’t alone. William Mallory Sr., who served 20 years as majority leader in the Ohio House before retiring in 1994, also credits McClain for his career path. Like Yates, Mallory heard McClain speak as a boy.
“I became aware of him as early as 1942. He was one of my heroes,” Mallory said. “He’s an inspiration to many people, especially young people. He’s taught us that even though many obstacles are placed in your way, if you persevere, you emerge not only victorious but stronger.”
That example echoes across time. Mallory’s own children include two who are judges, one who is a state representative and another who is Cincinnati’s mayor.
To be sure, McClain encountered many obstacles in his life – some of which made national headlines.
At college, McClain wasn’t allowed to sit with his white classmates during lectures. Instead, he had to sit in the hallway and listen from afar, straining to hear all the words.
“He’s tough,” said Ohio Senate Minority Leader Eric Kearney, who’s known McClain for 23 years. “When someone succeeds despite that, you know he’s going to make it and be around for awhile.”
McClain took up oratory as a hobby, partially to help him overcome a problem with stammering. His skill as a speaker took him all the way to the National Interstate Oratorical Association's competition near Chicago in April 1934, where he took the first-place prize. He was the only African-American participant.
The topic of his winning speech, written by himself, was race relations in America, a full 20 years before the modern civil rights movement began in earnest.
"I believe in a greater humanity that transcends race, color and creed," he told the crowd. "Therefore, I believe in the black man's destiny -- that somewhere, sometime in this land of ours, though black-skinned and kinky-haired, he shall climb the mountains of life, hand in hand with his white brother, and emerge above the clouds of blackness into the sunlight of freedom and social justice."
During law school, McClain wasn’t allowed to stay in the dormitory. With little cash to pay for a room, he lived in a fraternity house basement, earning money by serving meals between classes.
“That was back in the days of separate but equal,” McClain recalled recently as he sat on the sofa in his O’Bryonville apartment.
“When I went up to the University of Michigan Law School, I had to find places to live and so forth, and I had to fight the race problem,” he said. “That wasn’t discouraging because I was used to it from my days at Wittenberg and for most of my life, really.”
Perhaps McClain’s most noteworthy struggle was the one that he waged with the Cincinnati Bar Association. He persistently sought to break the professional organization’s color barrier.
While he was an assistant city solicitor, McClain applied for membership to the Bar Association in 1946. Out of the 29 applicants that year, only McClain was rejected. The reason was made clear: It was McClain’s race, not his professional expertise in question.
In those days, support from at least 80 percent of the association’s membership was needed for entry; only 65 percent favored McClain’s admission.
The rejection was uncommon, even in that era: Bar associations in Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Toledo all had black members, according to a Cincinnati Post article.
The situation was so egregious that it prompted an editorial by The New York Times on Nov. 2, 1946.
Here’s how the editorial described the Queen City: “Cincinnati is that ancient city on the Ohio, so proud of its past, its claims to culture, its fine school system and municipal university, its contributions to art and music, its lawyers, who have included President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft and Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase.”
But the newspaper went on to decry the bar’s decision. It quoted Paul Steer, the association’s treasurer, who said, “The Bar Association is not solely a social organization,” adding one of its chief aims is to “maintain the honor and dignity of the profession. We should be leaders in erasing distinctions of color and religion as a criterion of professional ability.”
The editorial then concluded, dryly, “The vote against Mr. McClain is not a step in that direction.”
McClain applied for membership again in 1947. The results were even worse, with only 62 percent supporting his membership that time. Several members, including Steer, resigned in protest.
But McClain was undaunted. He turned to the NAACP for help, which filed a legal challenge.
“The Bar Association tried to get the case thrown out on a motion and they lost it,” McClain said recently. “I think they realized if it went all the way to the Supreme Court, they probably weren’t going to win, so they dropped it.”
As a result, the Bar Association amended its rules and McClain was admitted on his third try, in October 1950.
Times have changed. Nowadays, the Bar Association offers a scholarship named for McClain. The college from which graduated, Wittenberg University, has a building named in his honor. The city where he broke barrier after barrier numbers him among its “Great Living Cincinnatians.”
“During a time when it was very difficult for African-American attorneys to succeed in the practice of law, he persevered, broke down many barriers, and paved the way for others to follow,” said Tony Reiss, the association’s president. “He has been a credit to the association and to our profession. We congratulate him on this milestone birthday.”
Leaving nothing undone
McClain was persuaded to settle in Cincinnati after leaving the Army by a fraternity brother, Theodore M. Berry, who would later become the city’s first black mayor. The decision was momentous as it allowed him to meet Roberta White, the best friend of Berry’s secretary.
McClain married Roberta – known as “Bert” to friends – in 1944. She was a supervisor at the Hamilton County Welfare Department for 32 years, until her retirement. The couple remained married until Bert’s death in 2011, at age 96.
A Republican, McClain attracted some unlikely admirers over the years.
In December 1965, Richard Nixon – then a New York attorney and ex-vice president – wrote McClain to express his admiration for a recent speech on civil rights problems.
“I wanted you to know that this was one of the most constructive statements I have read on this issue,” Nixon wrote. “There has been too much demagoguery and too little sense in much of the civil rights discussion during recent months and your remarks, therefore, stood out even more because of their constructive clarity and courage.”
McClain wasn’t hesitant to share his views on important issues.
At an NAACP dinner in 1976, he said, “Blacks have a personal crisis when they try to seek their identification. They have to try to struggle for their selfhood, for their self-acceptance. If a man does not attain his self-acceptance, then he never becomes a man. You must help blacks in America to love their blackness.”
After leaving the judicial bench, McClain practiced law at the Manley Burke law firm for 23 years, before retiring in 2003 at age 90.
“I found him to be an incredibly effective expert on municipal law,” said attorney Tim Burke. “That probably accounts for one of the reasons why he was the first African-American solicitor of a major American city.”
In recent years, McClain spends his time reading newspapers, visiting with friends and going to church every Sunday. A housekeeper visits twice a week, and members of Allen Temple A.M.E. in Bond Hill bring him dinner on most days.
He’s cared for by his niece, Winona McNeil, and her husband, Major, a former principal at Withrow High School. They say he likes to be driven around the city from time to time, admiring how it's changed and grown since he first moved here.
Before McNeil retired, McClain would visit him each day at the school.
“He had a philosophy that he shared with me, then he had a habit to check and see if I was following it,” McNeil said.
“Each day about 6 o’clock, he’d come to the front window of Withrow and knock on the window. He’d remind me that there should be no work left for tomorrow that could’ve been done today. That’s always been his philosophy.”