Wayne County, Michigan, Circuit Court Administrator Zenell Brown, Esq., led WMU-Cooley Law School’s Black History Month virtual discussion on Thursday, Feb. 23, as part of the law school’s Community Conversation series.
The author of Coffee and Conversations: Inclusion and Belonging, Brown is one of the legal profession’s most sought-out speakers and trainers of leadership and inclusion. She is a champion of justice for all through diversity, equity, and inclusion, and melds her court leadership, crucial conversation, dispute resolution skills, and diversity skills.
During the conversation, Brown spoke about her time working in the courts and some of the people she has met, learned about, and the history of black contributions in the court system. She recently wrote an article about black individuals who were leaders in the court system, which was published in Michigan Lawyers Weekly.
While sharing about Macon Bolling Allen, who is believed to have been the first African American to become an attorney, Brown said, “he was not accepted as a lawyer. He actually had to leave where he passed the bar and made to go practice elsewhere.”
From Allen’s experiences as a lawyer, Brown asked if today “are we really a welcoming practice to diverse populations and how do we make sure that we do have adequate pipelines and are building bridges, so those who don’t look traditionally what we think lawyers should look like have access and opportunity to practice law?”
Speaking about Charlotte E. Ray, who was the first black American woman lawyer, Brown said that Ray “enrolled at Howard University under the name C.E. Ray so nobody would know her gender.” While sharing some of Ray’s accomplishments, Brown said, “when we think about suffrage we don’t think about black women in the role they play. Start asking yourselves, how do we lift each other up.”
While working in the courts, Brown saw the merger of the Detroit Recorders Court, which handled crimes that happened inside the city of Detroit with the Third Circuit Court in 1998. “Because of the demographics in Detroit, you had a lot of judges who were in recorders court who were African American. When the two courts merged, those judges not only had to run for election in the city of Detroit, but they had to run for the election county wide,” said Brown. “Over the years you would see the percentage of African American judges sort of dwindle once that merger came about.”
Brown noted that she was fortunate to work with chief judges who noticed the lack of African American representation on the bench was an issue. “They would send information to the governor and say ‘are you paying attention to this as you make appointments that our bench needs to represent the community that we’re serving.’”
As the leader of Michigan’s Third Circuit Court administrative operations and member of National Association of Women Judges, Brown has 20 years of experience and a daily practice in the arts of court leadership and inclusion. In 2022, Brown was awarded the American Bar Association’s Robert B. Yegge Award for outstanding contribution in judicial administration, and the National Association of Court Management’s Perkins Award for consistently going above and beyond the call of duty to make behind-the-scenes contributions in court administration.
The full conversation with Brown can viewed on WMU-Cooley’s YouTube channel. WMU-Cooley’s Community Conversation series events take a deep dive into the most current topics impacting society and world.