Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 36, Number 1

A Learning Experience

Fred Work and Melvin Porter recall the challenges they faced as Vanderbilt's first African American law students

by Grace Renshaw
Melvin Porter and Fred Work, standing on the steps to Kirkland Hall

Melvin Porter and Fred Work, standing on the steps to Kirkland Hall

One evening in the fall of 1956, Fred Work received a warning phone call from his classmate, Melvin Porter. Work and Porter had just become the first two African-American students admitted to Vanderbilt's law school, and their reception hadn't been entirely friendly. En route from the parking lot to the law school the first day of class, the two had encountered white sheets of paper covered with black dots, affixed to every tree leading to Kirkland Hall, where the law school was then located. "One thing we were certain of," Work recalls. "This was not a sign of welcome."

Porter informed Work that a carload of white people had driven into his neighborhood and inquired where he lived. "Melvin's neighbors had the forethought to say he didn't live in that neighborhood," Work recalls. "He suggested that I might be on the lookout."

When Work's doorbell rang 10 minutes later, he peered out the window. The porch was crowded with five or six white men. Work had been studying and was dressed in slacks and a robe. He considered ignoring the group at the door, but then remembered that his family had an antique pistol. He tucked the pistol carefully into his robe and opened the door.

To Work's amazement, he was greeted by a well-intentioned group of Vanderbilt law alumni. Embarrassed by negative articles about the law school's integration that had appeared in local newspapers, the group's members wanted to assure Work and Porter that the news coverage didn't reflect the attitude of the Vanderbilt community. "They had come to encourage us and offer to help us in any way they could," Work recalls.

Pleasantly surprised, he thanked his visitors and invited them in. After they left, he took the pistol out of his robe and released the hammer. "The gun discharged and almost blew my foot off," he says. "You can imagine the commotion that caused."

As a senior at Fisk University, where both of his parents were professors, Work had applied to several law schools and been accepted at Boston University when he received a call from Vanderbilt Dean John Wade inviting him to interview for admission. At the interview, he learned that Edward Melvin Porter, the president of the student body at Tennessee State University, was also an applicant. "We were casual acquaintances," he says, "but after we were both admitted, it didn't take us long to realize that we were going to have to become the best of friends."

Melvin Porter arrived at Vanderbilt by a very different route. A native of Okmulgee, Oklahoma, he had joined the army right out of high school to earn enough money to put himself through college. Stationed with an all-white Tennessee National Guard unit in Korea, Porter had passed his first test of integration as an 18-year-old recruit. His service during the Korean conflict made him eligible for the GI Bill. A friend in his unit encouraged him to consider Tennessee State, which the friend described as "a fine black university." In his senior year, as TSU's student body president, Porter was instrumental in inviting Martin Luther King to visit the campus.

Porter knew early on that he would be an activist in the civil rights movement. He cherishes a particularly vivid memory of the year 20 new typewriters were delivered to the black high school he attended. The principal of the white high school arrived soon after the typewriters did, bringing with him 20 decrepit typewriters. Explaining the new typewriters had been "mistakenly delivered" to Porter's school, the white principal took them and left the old ones in their place. Porter had protested vigorously.

Both Work and Porter recall their first year at Vanderbilt as stressful and difficult. "The faculty was very helpful, and Dean Wade was committed to the success of this process," Work says. "Looking back, it was a learning experience not only for us African-Americans, but also for our classmates."

During the first semester, both men felt a palpable tension among many of their white classmates. "There was not obvious hostility," Porter says. "It was subtle. Certainly, some students - especially those in leadership positions - could have been more instrumental in making the atmosphere better."

Both were also keenly aware of the lack of casual camaraderie with other students, as well as their exclusion from traditional opportunities to mingle with other students and form future professional networks. "We were not invited to join any study groups," Porter says. "We couldn't join any legal fraternities or student organizations." The men were initially told they could not eat on campus, a restriction Dean Wade pointedly told them to ignore.

After the first year, much of the hostility subsided and the silence was gradually replaced with conversation, and by the third year, both men had formed genuine friendships with classmates. At this point, they faced another hurdle: finding a job. "Everybody else in the class had a place to go," Work says, "but the firms that traditionally recruited at Vanderbilt weren't interested in our services." Work broached the subject with Dean Wade, who contacted Senator Estes Kefauver. Within short order, Senator Kefauver secured Work an offer of employment in Washington and also helped him garner an offer of a fellowship at Yale. But Work declined both offers. "I didn't want to work for the government, and I was burned out on school," he admits.

He had also found his own alternative. That spring, Work's interest had been piqued by an article he happened to read in a business magazine about Gary, Indiana, a fast-growing steel town the article billed as "the last frontier of the Midwest." The author had made a point of the fact that "nobody was born in Gary - everybody was first-generation." Work decided Gary might be an ideal place for a first-generation lawyer to start a practice and planned a scouting visit. A classmate who lived in Bradley, Illinois, about 75 miles from Gary, called his parents and asked them if Work could stay with them during his trip. Work and his former classmate, Ron Dusenbery, '59, still maintain a friendship.

Five years after moving to Gary, Work became the first African-American to be nominated by a major party for a statewide office in Indiana. Today, at 72, he still manages a busy five-lawyer practice. During his 47 years in Gary, the town has changed from a bustling steel town to a declining outpost of the rust belt. Despite Gary's economic difficulties, Work remains a loyal citizen. "A lot of any success we've enjoyed has stemmed from being a part of that community," he says.

For Porter, who was married and worked at the Woodmont Country Club on weekends throughout law school to make ends meet, the opportunity to attend law school at Vanderbilt was a gift despite the hardship inherent in being one of the first African-Americans at Vanderbilt. After graduation, Porter moved his family to Oklahoma City, where he opened a law practice, became an activist in the civil rights movement, and became the first African-American elected to the Oklahoma State Senate in 1964. Early in his career, Porter recalls earning a salary of $50 a month for his service in the State Senate from January through the first half of May each year, and practicing law the remainder of the year.

His work in the civil rights movement, including two terms as president of the Oklahoma City branch of the NAACP, gave him confidence to face the prejudice he encountered in city, state and federal courts. "I faced more racism in legal practice than I ever dreamed I would face from both judges and lawyers," he recalls indignantly. "The legal profession totally shocked me with its entrenched, hard-core racism. When I first went to the court clerk's office, he said loudly, 'We have a new n—- lawyer in town.' Federal and state court judges permitted the use of the word by white lawyers. I challenged them, because by their silence, they condoned it."

Now retired, Porter notes that the greatest lesson he learned from his involvement in the civil rights movement was that "you've got to show love even when you are rejected."

"Even though you are hated, you don't become a hater - you reach out," he says. "I didn't always have that temperament—I was kind of hot-headed. But it turns out to be true - the great magic about Americans is their ability to overcome wrong, to eventually arrive at what is right. They did that with slavery, women's suffrage, and today, even in the South, there's a spirit of coexisting. We still have racism and we still have discrimination, but we've come a long way in solving these problems."