Black History: Charles Hatfield creates SU law school, changes fabric of legal education in the state

Black History: Charles Hatfield creates SU law school, changes fabric of legal education in the state
Updated: Feb. 14, 2018 at 9:14 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The Southern Law Center has been a university mainstay for more than seven decades, but it would not have ever existed without the efforts of one man.

Tucked away in the heart of the Southern University Law Center (SULC) lies the story of a man named Charles Hatfield. He never got quite the fame nor notoriety as some other Civil Rights pioneers, but the sacrifice he made not only gave birth to the school, but changed the very fabric of legal education in Louisiana.

"You don't know how bad these things could be and how ugly they could get," said Hatfield in a 1993 interview.

It was 1946 when he filed the lawsuit. It was a much different time in Louisiana. Jim Crow was alive and well in the south, but Hatfield, who went by Charlie back then, had a dream to go to law school. He applied to LSU, but was turned away. The only qualification he was missing was the right color skin. "I felt more disheartened and disgusted than fear," he said.

In a bold move, Hatfield filed a lawsuit against LSU and the state for discrimination. Hatfield's son, Charles, recounted to WAFB's Scottie Hunter some of what his father went through at the time. He says it was much later in life before his dad actually opened up about the ordeal and he understood the full scope of what happened.

"That infuriated him, because from his perspective, he is a citizen of Louisiana and he deserved all the rights of all citizens," said Hatfield. "It was incredible."

About six months after the suit was filed, the state legislature handed over funds to start the law school at Southern, but Hatfield would never attend. The negative blow back from the legal challenge rained down literal hellfire on the young man and his young family, who eventually had to flee to Atlanta to escape nearly constant death threats. It was at this time his focus slowly shifted away from law.

While his dream of pursuing a law degree never quite panned out, his selfless act did so much more. The effort opened the door for change, which is something Charles tells WAFB meant more to his father than anything else. "I think it always was and that's how he was," said Hatfield. "He always looked at the bigger picture."

The picture has gotten much bigger over the years. Chancellor John Pierre says the SULC has now produced thousands of graduates and molded some of the best legal minds in the profession. It is also regarded as one of the most racially diverse programs in the country. "We have a great responsibility and a great duty to make sure that this law center really propels itself as a great institution," said Pierre.

It's a responsibility Pierre says came from the bravery of one man determined to make a difference.

"When you look at how he changed legal education in the State of Louisiana, there's no doubt that he is a wonderful example of what one man can do when he's committed to a cause," Pierre added.

The cause is also credited with sparking others. Johnnie Jones, a SULC alum, was instrumental in leading the bus boycott in Baton Rouge. It's something Pierre says may not have been possible without Charles Hatfield. "All those social changes that are occurring in the 50s and 60s and 70s are basically because Charles Hatfield had the courage to force Louisiana to look at legal education and make it accessible to people of color," said Pierre.

During the 50th anniversary of the school in 2002, Hatfield was recognized and given the first honorary degree. It was a moment just as symbolic as it was special because Hatfield would die roughly one month after the ceremony, at age 87. His grandson, Eric Hatfield, remembers the moment as one of the happiest, but also a time of sorrow.

"It was bittersweet because we knew he was running out of time, but at the same time it was a thank you and a recognition of work that he did in his life," said Eric.

Eric is now on a mission of his own. Just more than 70 years after the lawsuit, he is now enrolled in law school. It's the very school his grandfather built and he is pursuing the degree the pioneer never got the chance to earn. "There's no doubt that I feel the aura of his legacy," said Eric. "There's definitely that omnipresent spirit that I feel."

It's a proud legacy that cannot be denied and the fulfillment of a dream deferred so long ago.

"If he's looking down from up there, I would imagine he'd be quite proud," said Eric.

The pride Hatfield would likely feel would not be just for his family or his accomplishments, but he would likely be more proud of the amazing opportunity gift he left behind for so many others.

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