Haywood, Margaret Austin

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Haywood, Margaret Austin

Margaret Haywood is a senior judge for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. She also was the first African–American woman to attain a top leadership position in a biracial U.S. church, the United Church of Christ.

Margaret Austin Haywood was born October 8, 1912, in Knoxville, Tennessee. When she was eight, she and her parents moved to Washington, D.C. Although she was aware of Segregation, her loving home life helped her to grow up feeling secure and self-confident. Haywood's parents, Mayme F. Austin and J. W. M. Austin, were able to provide her with a relatively comfortable childhood, although her father lost his job in 1929. After two years, he found another job with the Works Progress Administration, helping people obtain public assistance. Reading the letters people wrote to her father detailing their plights, Haywood learned that it was necessary to listen to people in order to help them.

Haywood was always an independent decision maker. While she was in high school, her teachers encouraged her to become a teacher, the best career option for black women in the 1930s. However, Haywood's interests were elsewhere, for reasons that were both practical and compelling. At the height of the Great Depression, in 1930, she came out of business school with no job and no money for college. She married and had a daughter, but the marriage, as she described it, "was disastrous." Before long, she found herself divorced and raising a child alone. "I wanted my daughter to have a good education, but I was earning only $15 a week as a secretary," she said. "That's when I began to think about going into law."

Determined to provide her daughter and herself with economic security, Haywood enrolled in Robert H. Terrell Law School, an institution for African–American students where she could attend classes at night and work during the day. During her first two years at Terrell, she was the only woman student; during the last two years, she was one of two woman students. This did not deter her, and she graduated from Terrell with her bachelor of laws degree in 1940.

After her admission to the District of Columbia bar in 1942, Haywood joined a well-known African–American law firm. She quickly realized that the firm expected her to specialize in domestic relations cases, whereas she was interested in practicing in other fields. Unwilling to compromise, she left the security of the firm and opened her own general practice, where she handled the full range of legal cases. In the early 1950s, she participated in the landmark Civil Rights case district of columbia v. john r. thompson co., 345 U.S. 921, 73 S. Ct. 784, 97 L. Ed. 2d 1353 (1953), which confirmed the validity of post–Civil War laws that prohibited segregation. For her efforts, Haywood received threats from the Ku Klux Klan and was labeled a Communist.

Haywood had practiced law for more than 25 years before President lyndon b. johnson appointed her to a part-time post on the District of Columbia Council. She served in that capacity from 1967 to 1972, during a time when the governance of the district was being reevaluated and reorganized. The revamped system of government, including an elected mayor and the council on which Haywood served, was approved in 1974.

In 1972, President richard m. nixon appointed Haywood as associate judge for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, the district's highest trial court. The following year, the United Church of Christ elected her its moderator, making her the first African–American woman to hold such a high position in a biracial U.S. church. As moderator, she presided over 728 delegates to the church's ninth biennial general synod, or governing council. Her position with the church was a two-year unsalaried post, which she combined with her duties on the court.

In 1982, Haywood achieved the rank of senior judge of the District of Columbia Superior Court. As a senior judge in the 2000s, Haywood continued to participate in judicial proceedings. Haywood retired in 2002.

Throughout her career, Haywood has received honorary degrees from several institutions, including Elmhurst College (1974), Carleton College (1975), Catawba College (1976), and Doane College (1979). In addition, she has been the recipient of many honors and awards. These include a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) trophy in 1950, the Women's Bar Association's Woman Lawyer of the Year award in 1972, induction into the District of Columbia Women's Commission Hall of Fame, and the Washington Bar Association's Charles Hamilton Medallion of Merit for contribution to Jurisprudence in 1980. In October 2002, the Standing Committee on Fairness and Access to D.C. Courts presented Haywood with its Trailblazer Award for her contributions to her profession and her community and, in particular, her continued commitment to ensuring equal access to the court system.

Further readings

Berry, Dawn Bradley. 1996. The 50 Most Influential Women in American Law. Los Angeles: Contemporary Books.

Drachman, Virginia G. 1998. Sisters in Law: Women Lawyers in Modern American History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.