Walter A. Gordon

Berkeley’s First Black Juris Doctor

From the grandson of slaves to the first African American to receive a JD (Juris Doctor) degree from UC Berkeley’s School of Law, Walter A. Gordon is an exceptional figure in Black law enforcement history.

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Gordon was born in Atlanta, GA, in 1894 and at the age of 10, he moved with his family to Riverside, CA. In 1914, Gordon entered the University of California at Berkeley and made a name for himself as an intercollegiate boxer and wrestler, winning state championships in both sports. He also played football and was named to the annual All-American football team in 1918—he was only the second African American to receive the honor.

Walter Gordon as a football player for University of California at Berkeley. Image Source
In 1919—a year after his graduation — Chief August Vollmer invited Gordon to join the Berkeley Police Department, where he became the city’s first Black officer. While doing police work, Gordon attended the School of Law at UC Berkeley, and in 1922 he became the first African American to receive a law degree from the state school. He passed the California Bar and started his law practice in Oakland, California, while also working as a scout and assistant coach for the UC Berkeley football team during the 1920s.

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Gordon retired from the Berkeley Police Department in 1930, but continued his law practice and often defended clients against county prosecution in Alameda County throughout the decade. In 1944, Governor Warren appointed Gordon to the California Adult Authority, the state’s parole board and in 1946, he rose to the role of chairman and led the board for nine years. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Gordon governor of the United States Virgin Islands, a position he held for three years. He was then appointed as federal judge of the District Court of the Virgin Islands and served for 10 years. Walter A. Gordon then went back to Berkeley, California, where he died on April 2, 1976 at the age of 81.

Black Trailblazers in Blue is created in partnership between the National Law Enforcement Museum and the National Black Police Association to celebrate the triumphs of African American leaders in Law Enforcement.