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Hampton Roads Community News

First Norfolk Black Law Firm Founded By 2 Women In 1949

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal and Guide

In 2008, the late Attorney W.T. Mason participated in an Oral History course conducted by Historian Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander of Norfolk State University. At that time Mason revealed some information about a significant chapter on the history of Black women in Hampton Roads.

Attorney Mason, whose life and legacy were featured in the February 9-15, 2023 edition of the GUIDE, recalled in the 2008 interview his career, historic events, and people leading up to that point in his life.

In the early 1950s, Mason, after graduating from Howard University Law School, and passing the bar examination, felt obligated to return home to Norfolk to practice law to provide a service much needed for his people.

White law firms were not accepting Black lawyers regardless of their skill or reputation, he said. Many Black male lawyers worked alone.

He said there was only one Black-owned law firm – Diggs and Douglass – and it was run by two women, Bertha Douglass and T. (Thelma) I. Diggs, formed in 1949. (Publisher’s Note: The GUIDE stories spelled “Douglass” with one “s”: “Douglas.”)

Both were pioneers.

Douglass was actually the first woman in Norfolk to be certified as a female lawyer after passing the bar examination in 1926.

The two were not only very busy and highly respected lawyers, but the duo also worked many cases where they outwitted their white adversaries and impressed white judges who dominated the judicial system until Blacks got appointments in the 1970s.

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The Diggs-Douglass firm showed up in many articles in the Norfolk Journal and Guide illustrating their activism in civic, business, church, and political affairs in the Black community.

According to the GUIDE story announcing her death, Lawyer T. (Thelma) Ione Diggs lived in the Lindenwood neighborhood in the 800 block of Hayes Street where her home still stands.

She was the niece of noted Black Norfolk Attorney J. Eugene Diggs.

She was practicing law and was active until the day she died on January 14, 1973, according to the article. Before she became a lawyer, she taught at Martinsville High School for four years and returned home to become supervisor of the Venereal Disease Control programs in Norfolk.

After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School, she earned an Associated Bachelor’s Degree from Virginia State College and graduated Magna Cum Laude from Howard University Law School.

Attorney Diggs was a member of the Twin City Bar Association; Norfolk-Portsmouth Bar Association; Virginia Trial Lawyers Association; Virginia Old Dominion and National Bar Association; and the American Judicature Society.

She was a member of the Women for Political Action, the Board of Directors of the Norfolk Committee for the Improvement of Education, Inc., Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, and Mt. Olive Baptist Church.

Miss Bertha Louise Douglass, her law partner, was recorded as “Norfolk’s First Colored Woman Lawyer,” according to the December 25, 1926, edition of the GUIDE.

Douglass, born in 1895 in Norfolk, was the daughter of John H. Douglas, a waiter and porter, and Margaret Anne Cornick Douglass, a laundress.

She graduated in 1915 from Norfolk Mission College, a private school that educated many of the children of the city’s Black elite.

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Douglass began working in 1917 as a stenographer for John Eugene Diggs, a prominent member of Norfolk’s small number of Black lawyers.

She was also a notary public in 1919 and three years later enrolled in the American Correspondence School of Law, located in Chicago.

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, and joined Diggs’ law firm.

She was the second African-American woman admitted to practice in the state.

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