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Four Lives Connected by Law

Albert Armendariz, broke and eager to start practicing law, arrived home in El Paso, Texas on a hot June afternoon in 1950, bringing with him his young wife and two sons, a USC law degree, and the dusty 1935 Plymouth which had reliably carried the family back and forth from Los Angeles to El Paso for the past three years. His proud father embraced him and, speaking in Spanish, gave him this charge: “The Lord did not make you a lawyer to serve yourself. You have a duty to serve your country and especially the oppressed group of people of which youare a member. If a people ever needed true and honest representation, it is the Mexican-American.” In addition to the advice, his father loaned him $40 to pay the first month’s rent on his El Paso law office.

Forty-eight years later, Albert Armendariz still works less than four blocks from his childhood home, where he now practices law with his son. Though he has long since repaid the $40 loan, he has never forgotten his father’s advice.

Albert Armendariz’s experience was, in many ways, a shared one. From 1900 to at least 1950, the typical USC law student was the first person in his or her family to attend college and the first to graduate from law school. Coming from families of modest economic means, most worked while attending law school. And, for virtually all students, the study of law was an intellectually demanding experience.

But what distinguishes Albert Armendariz and the three other graduates described in this article – You Chung Hong, Crispus A. Wright and Frank Chuman – is the additional challenge that each faced in his professional life: racial prejudice. And what further links these four men is their ability to rise above stifling personal and societal barriers and turn intellectual promise and academic talent into professional success in the service of his community.

Legal Unprecedent

The life of You Chung Hong (1898-1977), the first Chinese student to graduate from the USC Law School, was a model of educational success, professional accomplishment, civic engagement and philanthropic largess. The son of poor Chinese immigrants, Hong was the first person in his family to enter college and the first to study law; his achievements as a Los Angeles attorney earned him financial reward and civic regard in ways that were unimaginable to his parents.

For 50 years, Chinese-Americans regarded Y.C. Hong as the country’s foremost Chinese attorney, a reputation based on his relentless work to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Like many 19th-century Chinese, You Chung Hong’s father arrived in California to work as a laborer on railroad construction and in the state’s borax mine. Death came in 1903 to the senior Hong, leaving his son Y.C. and a sister in the care of their mother who, having never learned English, eked out a living in San Francisco as a cigar roller and seamstress. Following his high school graduation in 1915, Y. C. Hong founded an English language school for Chinese immigrants while working as a bookkeeper in several Chinese restaurants. Moving to Los Angeles around 1918, he began translating for the United States Immigration Service. There, a Japanese interpreter who was attending the USC Law School extolled the benefits of studying law, especially with an eye toward practicing immigration law.

In 1920, Hong enrolled in USC’s four-year night program, held in the Tajo Building at First and Broadway. The sole support of his family, Hong was so poor he could not afford to purchase textbooks; he depended upon the kindness of classmates willing to loan their books, as well as his ability to recall, sentence-by-sentence, law school lectures. He passed the Bar in 1923, becoming the first Chinese-American to practice law in California. Law School Dean Frank M. Porter nonetheless persuaded Hong to finish not one but two degrees in law at USC; and after completing an LL.B. in 1924 and a LL.M. in 1925, Hong established a practice in Chinatown.

Both immigration law and his tireless work on behalf of Chinese-American civil rights were central to Y.C. Hong’s practice and life. For 50 years, Chinese-Americans regarded him as the country’s foremost Chinese attorney, a reputation based on his relentless work to repeal the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. He testified before the U.S. Senate Hearing Committee on immigration laws before he was 30 years old and, at the age of 28, he was elected president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Chinese-American Citizens Alliance (C.A.C.A.), which was founded in 1895 to “quicken the spirit of American patriotism, to insure the legal rights of its members and to secure equal economical and political opportunities for its members.” The Chinese Times, the journal of C.A.C.A., was the popular medium through which Hong advanced his views on Chinese community affairs.

Hong was keenly involved in the construction of New Chinatown in 1938, providing legal advice and personal investments. Moving his practice to 445 Ginling Way represented the confluence of law, community and wealth. Here he gave flight to his philanthropic side, especially but not exclusively for the Chinese community. The Law School, for example, continues to benefit from his happy association with USC. Presently two scholarship funds, one managed by the Southern California Chinese Lawyers’ Association, provide assistance for law students in Y.C. Hong’s honor; and the education of several USC law students was financed by Y. C. Hong awards, a testament to the school which so shaped his life in law and community. Two sons attended USC: Nowland, a 1959 graduate of the Law School, and Roger, who earned degrees in architecture (1965) and urban and regional planning (1968).

The Bamboo Attorney

“Uncomfortable, tense” are the words Frank Chuman uses to describe his feelings when his first client, a blond Caucasian woman, walked into his rented office on the fifth floor of the Douglas Building on Spring Street one morning in June 1947. She gasped when she saw Chuman, a Japanese-American; he barely suppressed a gasp of his own. At that critical instant, Chuman was “overcome by a keen sense of being Japanese-American,” which he found both humiliating and infuriating.

Frank Chuman’s life as a USC student ended abruptly in March 1942 when he was interned at Manzanar, the relocation center which housed 10,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.The woman’s powerful, reflexive response to Chuman’s Asian face posed the question which all non-Caucasian attorneys invariably must answer: was Chuman an attorney or a Japanese-American attorney? Could he, a man whose life had been severely disrupted by internment in the Manzanar Relocation Center, provide responsible counsel to a Caucasian client? Chuman and the young woman answered the question quickly when she chose him as her counsel. It was the right decision: Chuman won her case.That Frank Chuman’s first client session was dominated by his conflicting feelings of humiliation, gratitude and intense anger is understandable. His life as a USC law student had ended abruptly in March 1942 when he was interned at the Manzanar Relocation Center, the isolated high-desert enclosure that housed 10,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. Through sponsorship of the American Friends Committee, Chuman left Manzanar in the fall of 1943 to continue his legal studies, first in Ohio, then at the University of Maryland Law School, from which he graduated in 1945.

Frank Chuman’s subsequent life in the law – he practices still – expanded his sense of himself as attorney and person; he is well recognized in professional circles as one whose work, particularly on citizenship issues, has greatly benefited the Japanese-American community.

The son of Japanese immigrants – his father managed a Montecito, California estate and his mother was a “picture bride” – Chuman graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1934 and from UCLA in 1938, and enrolled in USC’s Law School in 1940. While a law student, he worked at the Los Angeles County Probation Department until the infamous Evacuation Order No. 9066 appeared in February 1942. Around March 14, Chuman attended his last class at USC; a week later – March 21 – he was appointed chief administrator for the Manzanar Hospital.

In 1945, Chuman returned to Los Angeles as a researcher for the law firm Wirren, Rissman & Okrand, where Fred Okrand was a 1940 USC law graduate. The firm was then of counsel to the ACLU, and special counsel to the Japanese-American Citizens League on constitutional issues related to the Japanese-American relocation. Chuman recalls with amusement that his most difficult class at USC was Pendleton Howard’s constitutional law course; ironically, after Manzanar, constitutional law was at the center of his practice, both as a reaction to his internment experience and as an integral aspect of immigration law.

Frank Chuman was not the first Japanese-American student to attend the Law School. Several Japanese nationals studied law at USC as early as 1908; most returned to Japan because, as foreign nationals, they were prohibited from practicing law in California. Sei Fujii LL.B. ’11 (1882-1954), however, remained in Los Angeles.

In many ways, as a USC Law School student, engaged civil rights activist, community builder and philanthropist, Fujii anticipated Frank Chuman’s life. Fujii founded and edited the leading Los Angeles bilingual Japanese language newspaper, the California Daily News. In those pages, Fujii urged an integrationist posture, counseling Japanese readers on the mysteries of American customs and language. Simultaneously, he bolstered institutions serving the Los Angeles Japanese community. In 1924, Fujii’s plan to build and incorporate a Japanese hospital in East Los Angeles owned by Japanese physicians was denied by the State of California. With legal representation by Fujii’s law school classmate J. Marion Wright ’13, the Japanese hospital group won a Supreme Court ruling in 1928 allowing construction of the hospital. In April 1952, Fujii v. The State of California overturned the California Alien Land Act of 1913 as a violation of the 14th Amendment.

Other early Japanese-Americans who studied law at USC include Masanosuki Oyuki LL.M. ’16, Gongoro Nakamura LL.B. ’22, Kiichi Iwanaga LL.B. ’25 and John Maeno LL.B. ’32, who worked closely with J. Marion Wright on civil rights cases important to the local Japanese community.

Frank Chuman’s 50-year life as an attorney engaged in and on behalf of the Los Angeles Japanese-American community had precedents in men like Sei Fujii and John Maeno. Like them, he spent his life serving the local Japanese-American community. He worked on internment and immigration law, and was national president of the Japanese-American league. He is also an historian of the Japanese-American experience in the United States. His provocative book, The Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese-Americans (1971), describing the resilience of the Japanese-Americans in the face of powerful anti-Asian laws, is the definitive work on the subject.

A philanthropist as well as an activist, Chuman has created a foundation that will provide law scholarships at the USC Law School and at other institutions.

Crispus Attucks Wright, an African American whose life in the practice of law in Los Angeles is a triumph of personal accomplishment and civic engagement, embodies Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous observation about shucking the weight of American racial attitudes. Despite the oppressive burdens imposed on persons because of religion, c untry and race, a few sturdy individuals – de Tocqueville was writing about freed blacks in 1831 – might nonetheless “surmount the prejudices.”

Don’t spend where you can’t work” was the motto of civil rights activists in the 1930s; for Crispus Wright, it became both a fitting anthem and an orientation that would last a lifetime.

Cris Wright’s life has been touched by an impressive span of history, ranging from slavery to Martin Luther King to the current political and social agenda in the United States. His father, Warner Wright, was born a slave in Louisiana in 1864; 25 years later he graduated from Leland University, a black Louisiana college founded by northern Baptists. Warner Wright’s career as a teacher and school principal in segregated Louisiana schools imparted an educational imperative into his family’s life, along with a keen sense of African-American lives. Two of his children, Booker T. Wright and Crispus Attucks Wright, were named for prominent black figures – Booker T. Washing-ton, the foremost black leader in post-Civil War America, and Crispus Attucks, a freed black seaman who was the first man to be killed in the Revolutionary War.

Cris Wright was born in 1914, the youngest of eight children. Soon after moving to Los Angeles in 1919, Warner Wright died; his wife, who worked as a janitor at Westlake Park and as a domestic to support her family, never compromised her husband’s belief in the importance of education. Among the seven of her eight children who attended college, three of them studied at USC – Warner II, who became a physician, Mercedes and Cris.

Wright’s civil consciousness was sparked in 1928. While selling newspapers in front of the Hotel Somerville – owned by John and Vada Somerville, both USC dental school graduates – young Wright met W.E.B. DuBois, who was attending the NAACP national conference in Los Angeles. Three decades later, Wright would host the Reverend Martin Luther King on his visits to the city. In between DuBois and King, Cris Wright, while an undergraduate student at UCLA and at USC in the mid-1930s, participated in the boycott of Central Avenue businesses which refused to hire black employees. “Don’t spend where you can’t work” was the motto of those days; for Wright, it became a fitting anthem melding economics and civil rights and an orientation which would last a lifetime.

From the 1920s through the 1950s, Central Avenue was the locus of black commercial and professional life in Los Angeles. The few black attorneys – perhaps no more than two dozen, estimates Wright – practicing in Los Angeles before World War II maintained offices in the vicinity of Central and Vernon; here, young Wright, whose verbal skills won him notice as an accomplished debater at Manual Arts High School, met Bert McDonald LL.B ’23, one of the most prominent black attorneys in Los Angeles. McDonald’s words in praise of his life in the law and the USC Law School greatly impressed the young student. After school, he often visited the red sandstone courthouse in Los Angeles, admiring the skills of the city’s foremost black litigator, Willis O. Tyler, and his youthful partner Edwin L. Jefferson, a 1931 graduate of USC Law School.

Wright entered USC in 1932, but owing to the Depression, he transferred to UCLA for two years; he returned to USC in 1935, earning a B.A. in 1936 and a law degree in 1938.

Entering practice in 1940, Wright confronted the common difficulty facing all neophyte attorneys: persuading clients to entrust their cases to them. Unlike Caucasian lawyers, though, the young black attorney faced a secondary problem: persuading black clients that representation by black attorneys was comparable to that offered by white lawyers. Additionally, the Los Angeles County Bar Association was restricted.

Undaunted, Wright joined a group of other Los Angeles black attorneys to form the John M. Langston Bar Association in 1943. Intended as a professional forum for the local black legal community, the Langston Bar Association also dealt with issues of prejudice. In addition to Cris Wright, the founding membership included USC law graduates Edwin Jefferson and David Williams ’37. Vince Townsend, one of the primary movers of the association, did post-graduate study at USC Law School; Ivan J. Johnson ’27 was among the founders. The Griffith Brothers, Thomas and Lloyd, both earned bachelor’s degrees at USC, as did Walter Gordon, Jr. Even Willis O. Tyler, the Harvard-trained doyen of black litigators, had a USC connection: his niece, Helen Wheeler Riddle ’27 was the first black woman to graduate from the Law School. It is easy to imagine that the early meetings, often held at the Club Alabama next to the Hotel Somerville, might have occasionally sounded like a USC Alumni Association gathering.

After two years in the army, Wright re-established a general practice near Vernon and Central before moving to Beverly Hills, where his clients included the Boys Markets, the Independent Retailers Association of Southern California, and the old Rapid Transit District. While he invested heavily in the commercial activities which served the Los Angeles African-American community – one of his investments was the Los Angeles Sentinel, the oldest continually published black newspaper in the West – Wright’s was a successful practice which both served and yet transcended race and culture.

Reflecting on his gratifying life in the law, and his desire and ability to make such lives possible for others, Cris Wright recently endowed a $2 million scholarship fund at the USC Law School in support of African-American students as well as other students with an interest in serving under-represented communities.

True and Honest Representation

If the Crispus Attucks Wright Scholarship had been available to students in 1947, Albert Armendariz, a World War II veteran from El Paso, Texas, would certainly have been a recipient. That Armendariz would ever practice law was unlikely. His father commuted daily from his El Paso home to the Mexican city of Juarez, where he worked as a telegraph operator; his mother, professionally trained as a concert pianist, remained at home to raise eight children. Her death when Albert was only nine made economics more pressing than education for the family; following his 1934 graduation from El Paso High School, Armendariz first worked as a shoe salesman, then as an auto mechanic. Drafted at the onset of World War II, he spent four years at Fort Bliss, Texas, in the motor pool.

It is now time to ask ourselves some very serious questions.” For Albert Armendariz, the most serious questions would be those concerning Mexican-American civil rights.

In 1947, following undergraduate study at Texas Western University, Armendariz, inspired by the legal careers of his maternal grandfather and uncle, enrolled at USC Law School on the G.I. Bill. A sister-in-law living in Los Angeles was willing to provide housing for the young and poor Armendariz family.

Working at odd jobs during his three years in law school provided ample time for Armendariz to ruminate on the meaning of Pendleton Howard’s daily class-opening greeting: “It is now time to ask ourselves some very serious questions.” For Armendariz, the most serious questions would be those concerning Mexican-American civil rights. Even though he was from Texas, Armendariz learned of at least two Mexican-Americans who preceded him at the law school: Manuel R. Ruiz ’30 and fellow student Frank F. Solis ’49, both of whom had practices in the Los Angeles Mexican-American community.

Returning to El Paso after his 1950 graduation, Armen-dariz immediately began his legal practice and civic life. From his neighborhood store-front office, he developed an immigration practice serving Hispanic (his preferred word) clients. From 1976 to 1985, he was an administrative judge in immigration; later he held an appointment on the Texas Court of Appeals.

Equally important to Armendariz has been his life in two Hispanic civil organizations: The League of United Latin-American Citizens and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Actively involved in LULAC since 1951, Armendariz was national president of the organization in 1954 and has since served in many voluntary capacities, the most important of which was as chief legal officer for the LULAC corporation.

Armendariz embraced the notion that the educational and civil rights of Mexican-Americans needed an active legal component. This he helped generate, not only for LULAC, but for and through MALDEF in 1969. With other attorneys, Armendariz helped found the national organization which today maintains its national headquarters in Los Angeles.

From 1968 to 1971, Armendariz served as chairman of the MALDEF board of trustees. During his tenure, MALDEF attracted grants from the Ford Foundation to fund legal scholarships for promising Mexican-American law students. A matching-fund program provided by 100 American law schools, including USC, expanded the reach of the MALDEF scholarship initiative. Armendariz’s work on behalf of MALDEF represents a life of community lawyering, civil engagement, and philanthropy.

The commitment to community both links and distinguishes the legal and civic lives of Albert Armendariz, Crispus Attucks Wright, Frank Chuman and You Chung Hong. Each man overcame significant economic and personal hardships before and while attending law school at USC, and each man faced powerful prejudices, not only within society, but within the legal profession itself. Despite this, their collective perseverance and courage contributed to the reshaping of their social and professional worlds, and through their philanthropic acts, each has directly or indirectly served the USC Law School.

Four Lives Connected by Law

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