During Black History Month, I want us to remember Hattie Briscoe.
As a young lawyer entering the ranks of the profession in 1982, it was uncommon for me to see other minority lawyers at the courthouse, much less women of color who were answering docket call. But Hattie Ruth Briscoe, the first Black woman to practice law in Bexar County and the only one for almost three decades, from 1956 to 1983, was there regularly for the 42 she practiced law.
Hattie was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1916. She attended Wiley College, a historically black, liberal arts college in Marshall, Texas where she received a Bachelor’s Degree in 1937, and met her husband, William, a San Antonio native. They moved to San Antonio in the early 1940s and opened a beauty shop, Briscoe’s Beauty Salon, which was located near the intersection of Pine and Iowa streets in the Denver Heights neighborhood, a once a thriving area of economic and cultural richness on San Antonio’s east side. Hattie worked as a beautician and taught cosmetology at Phillis Wheatley High School, a segregated public high school for African Americans, from 1945 to 1951. She earned a Master’s Degree in education from Prairie View A&M College in 1951.
Hattie entered St. Mary’s University School of Law in 1952. She was one of two women in the class, the other was her friend, Carol Haberman who later became the first female district court judge in Bexar County. Race and gender were significant hurdles for a Black woman graduating law school in segregated San Antonio in 1956. Most large law firms would not hire Blacks or women, and even most government jobs were unattainable. Hattie, like other women and minority lawyers of the time, dealt with this prejudice by operating as sole practitioners in the communities where they lived and finding business from word-of-mouth referrals. She opened an office on the east side and began handling criminal cases, including a few that involved law enforcement’s mistreatment of east side citizens. She earned a reputation for able, tenacious and scrappy handling of the everyday legal matters she took on for her clients.
Although I knew Hattie from the courthouse, I never had a case against her. My former law partner, John Compere, told me about the time Hattie represented the husband and he represented the wife in a contentious divorce. At one point in the negotiations, the husband became belligerent when John was doing his job too well. Hattie took her client aside and, like the school teacher she had once been, scolded her six foot, athletically built client about maintaining his decorum. John was impressed with how quickly the client complied.
She was a member of the San Antonio Bar Association until 1998. Her bar directory photo from that year is included. She was also member of the Texas Bar Association, Texas Criminal Bar Association, American Bar Association, National Association of Defense Lawyers Criminal Cases, National Association of Black Women Attorneys, and the San Antonio Black Lawyers Association. Hattie died in San Antonio in October 2002 just short of her 86th birthday.