In the early 1900s in the Bay Area, African-American lawyers were unwelcome and faced hostile opposition in the legal community.
It was not until 1943 that the American Bar Association allowed Black Attorneys into their organization, and although local bar associations admitted Blacks, their practice was restricted.
In 1955, the first African-American Bar Association, the Charles Houston Law Club, was formed in the Bay Area by 32 African American lawyers. Many went on to become judges, ambassadors, mayors, county supervisors and successful businessmen.
One of those founders was attorney Hiawatha T. Roberts, an advocate and champion of civil rights causes during the 62 years of his career.
Known for his “solo guerrilla lawyering” tactics, Roberts, guided by G.B. Gipson, of the East Bay Democratic Club and Assemblyman Byron Rumford, fought for the integration of the drug store at 13th and Broadway in Oakland that for years had refused service to Blacks.
Roberts served as general counsel for the United Auto Worker (UAW), obtaining integrated housing for minorities near the Ford plant in Milpitas.
He integrated the realtor organization so that Blacks could become members, assisting Ray Collins’ appointment as president to the Alameda County Board. To assure a fair price for homes, Roberts represented Russell City African American’s facing annexation to the City of Hayward, who previously were offered pennies on the dollar in order to use the property to build houses for white folks.
In 1958, Roberts turned from criminal to civil court practice. From 1956 to the present, he has practiced probate law where he discovered discriminatory practices and a “white male only” policy that has denied him fees of approximately $1 million.
Racial discrimination against him began in 2008 while representing Milburn Fort, who died with a $200,000 Deed of Trust on his condo on Lake Merritt.
Upon Fort’s death, the $200,000 dollar lien was on the property, with no written document it secured. This made transfer of the property or the closing of the estate impossible.
It took 17 years of litigation to find the secret judgment regarding the note on the property.
Judge Marshall Whitley, an African-American seated in Probate court, encouraged Roberts to proceed to litigate the matter to conclusion although the estate had run out of money.
Roberts invested $65,000 of his personal money and incurred fees exceeding $235,000. On the eve of closing the estate, Judge Whitley removed Fort’s son as executor, denying the son access to the property even though his nephew had offered $400,000.
The judge appointed attorney Dwayne Leonard as special administrator, who sold the property for $300,000. He then paid off liens and inferior claims to creditors with the exception of Roberts, who he allowed $11,000 on his claim of over $300,000, a priority claim by law.
“When Black lawyers in Alameda County are representing clients, the judge inevitably appoints a court representative for the estate,” said Roberts.
“ There is a 25 court appointed attorney (on a) list – all white males – and those white administrators often make no effort to represent the desires of family members desiring to keep their property.
“They request exorbitant fees while cutting Black attorney fees 40 percent to 50 percent, which only covers overhead. The end result is a denial of profit.
“I’ve made no money, and this has happened to me at least six times, rendering me insolvent. This is a gross violation of the judge’s discretion to the point that it is illegal.
“At age 89, I am now insolvent, leaving my wife and I to live solely on social security at $2,600 a month, while the court has denied me close to a million dollars in fees over the past 10 years.
“I have sought an audience with probate judges for years regarding this racial injustice to no avail.”