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Earl B. Dickerson Research Guide

Who was Earl B. Dickerson?

Earl B. Dickerson

Earl B. Dickerson was a leading Chicago civil rights lawyer, and one of the earliest African-Americans to receive a degree from the University of Chicago Law School, in 1920.

Dickerson was born in Canton, Mississippi in 1891. He came to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois, and the University of Chicago Law School. He was drafted into the Army after his second year of Law School, where he served as a commissioned officer, and returned to finish his JD in 1919. After graduation, he served as general counsel, and later CEO, of the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company. He took leadership positions in a number of organizations, including the NAACP, the Urban League, and the National Lawyers Guild, and was appointed by FDR to the Fair Employment Practices Committee during World War II. Dickerson fought racial discrimination and segregation in employment, education, and housing, most notably in the case Hansbury v. Lee (1940) in which the U.S. Supreme Court, struck down racially restrictive covenants in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.  



1891   Born on June 22, 1891 in Canton, Mississippi to Edward and Emma Garrett Fielding Dickerson.

1917   As First Lieutenant in the Army in World War I, fought against Jim Crow discrimination against black service members, served as defense counsel in courts-martial involving black soldiers.

1920   Became the first African-American to receive a JD degree from the University of Chicago Law School.

1920   Named General Counsel for the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co.

1927   Helped establish Burr Oak Cemetery, one of the few African American cemeteries in southwestern Cook County.

1935   Admitted to the Chicago Bar Association in 1935, with a group of African-American lawyers.

1939   Helped organize the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

1939   Became the first black Democratic Chicago alderman, representing the 2nd ward from 1939 to 1943. 

1940   Named Chairman of the Fair Employment Practices Commission by President Roosevelt. Under Dickerson, the FEPC undertook intensive investigations that exposed the scope of race discrimination in war-related production.

1940   Represented the plaintiff Carl Hansberry in the case that struck down the racially restrictive covenants that kept Chicago blacks from buying homes outside Bronzeville. Dickerson represented Hansberry from trial through appeals all the way to success in the United States Supreme Court in Hansberry v. Lee (1940).

194?   Elected President of the Chicago Branch of the NAACP. 

1941-1971   Director of the NAACP. Involved in civil rights marches and demonstrations in the 1960s, and leader behind the scenes of campaigns dealing with housing discrimination, employment discrimination, school segregation, and other issues. 

1949   Dickerson and his family moved into a three-flat building on Drexel Blvd. that they purchased in 1947, the first blacks to live in Hyde Park since before World War I. 

1945   Elected president of the National Bar Association, an association for black lawyers, who were excluded from the American Bar Association.

1947   Dickerson was also involved in the Sipes v. McGhee, 316 Mich. 614, 25 N.W.2d 638, 640 (1947), rev'd sub nom. Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1, 68 S. Ct. 836, 92 L. Ed. 1161 (1948), case challenging racial covenants in Detroit.

1947   Contributed to the W.E.B. Du Bois's NAACP petition “An Appeal to the World: A Statement of Denial of Human Rights to Minorities in the Case of citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and an Appeal to the United Nations for Redress.”

1951   Elected first black president of the National Lawyers Guild. Dickerson defended the Guild against the Attorney General's attempts to classify it as a Communist "subversive organization," which were dropped in 1958.

1952   Became president of Supreme Life Insurance Company

1961   Nominated to the new Illinois Fair Employment Practices Commission, but the nomination was rejected by the Illinois Senate.

1965   One of first recipients of the Thurgood Marshall Award for support of civil rights laws by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. [Chicago Defender, Dec. 11, 1965.]

1983    Mayor Harold Washington issues a proclamation that May 1, 1983 be Earl B. Dickerson Day in Chicago. 

1984    Established the Earl Dickerson Scholarship Fund at the University of Chicago Law School to benefit a student who exemplifies strong moral character and who is committed to projects in the law that seek to correct social injustices..