Judge Vaino Hassan Spencer �" Professional Trailblazer with Class

Julia Miglets

January 12, 2017

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Justice Vaino Hassan Spencer, the first black woman appointed to a judgeship in the state of California, passed away on October 25, 2016. Along with her judgeship, she was an activist for women and minorities. Vaino Hassan Spencer was the great-aunt of WITI author and The Azara Group founder, Fatimah Gilliam. Julia Miglets had the opportunity to interview Gilliam about her late aunt. Gilliam shares with us what she learned from the professional legacy of this determined trailblazer.

JM: I read that your aunt received her degree from Southwestern Law School in 1952. I feel as though the fifties were a time where most women were expected to get married, not go to college. Was the degree something that her family encouraged her to attain, or something she had to fight for?

FG It is true that women have not been in the same position that they're in today. In the 50s, women often didn't have careers - especially not as lawyers. But there is a difference regarding work expectation when you're talking about white women and women of color. Women of color have always had to work. While being President of the United States wasn’t an option, in California you could be a schoolteacher, clerk, housekeeper, or seamstress. Regardless, you had to work somewhere. The economy didn’t allow many black women the option of being stay-at-home moms, which is mostly the case today. My aunt knew she had to work to make a living, and my family was very supportive �" including my grandfather who was her brother.

Growing up during the Great Depression, Vaino started working from an early age �" as a teenager she appeared as an extra in “Laurel and Hardy,” and Errol Flynn movies. But she started her professional career in real estate, running a business with my great-grandfather and grandfather. In her 20s, she decided to go to college. She went to Los Angeles City College where she earned an associate’s degree. Back then, you didn’t always need a bachelor’s degree to go to law school. After Vaino graduated, she went into private practice. In fact, she was one of the first black women to do that, period. She was also one of the first black women to pass the California State Bar.

She practiced law for some years, and then she was appointed to the bench. She was a judge for 46 years. By the time she retired, she was a Presiding Judge of California’s Court of Appeal, a position she held for 27 years. She was the first black female judge in California and the first on the Court of Appeal. She was a woman of many firsts and a real pioneer.

JM: She must have had a lot of encouragement from her family.

FG They were. Her father (my great-grandfather) wanted her to be a lawyer. He thought that it would be a good fit for her. She had support from both parents, and her brother.

Her brother (my grandfather) was supportive of whatever she wanted to do professionally. He helped her with her real estate business while she entertained the idea of advancing her law career.

JM: Your aunt was the first black woman to be appointed to a judgeship in the state of California. Did she ever face any oppression for holding that position?

FG It was not an easy road for her, and I know she accepted that as part of the social contract of working as a black woman in America. She encountered challenges and hurdles, but she tried to get through any difficulty with as much grace and professionalism as possible.

It was important not just be somebody who advanced herself; she believed in the advancement of everybody. That's why she was so involved in politics, civic engagement, and founding different organizations — she thought that somebody shouldn't just be the first one to walk through a door — they needed to leave the door open, and widen it as much as possible.

JM: She was a part of many "firsts" for society. In what ways did she oppose societal norms, both as a professional and as a person?

FG Vaino was a woman, she was black, she was a divorcee, and she didn't have any children (which was a personal choice). She cared very much about her career, and she made sacrifices for it. For people that want to achieve something, everything comes with a price.

You might have to make professional sacrifices, personal sacrifices, or sacrifices of your time. Nothing comes for free. Nothing comes without hard work and dedication; Vaino put that into her career. But equally important, she dedicated herself to ensuring that others advanced along with her.
JM: What were the motivating factors behind her work ethic? What inspired her to continue to work in the legal profession for so long?

FG She was passionate about what she did. She loved being a judge. She also believed in being successful. People who knew her, or knew of her, knew that she was somebody who thought it was important not just to be successful in your career but to exude that success. She was very regal and elegantly dressed all the time.

The way she looked was important to her regarding her image and her brand. She wanted her office to look good; she wanted her home to look good; she wanted you to look good. She believed that people should put effort into how they work and look. For her, those two things went hand-in-hand.

JM: I agree with that. Professionalism causes people to take you more seriously as career-person.

FG If you look at pictures of her, she looked distinguished all of the time. She always dressed nicely. That was important to her.

Regarding her work ethic, she worked long and hard. She understood the importance of connectivity and networking. Vaino had a Rolodex of people that she could call when she needed something. She made time to be available to other people; she understood that it went both ways. You don't get to be a judge by filling out an application.

You have to lobby for it. You have to have connections and sponsors and people who are willing to attach their name to you. She was very skilled at developing strategic relationships with people, both personally and professionally. She was friends with lawyers, and not just as colleagues. She understood how critical professional friendships are for a person's professional advancement.

After her passing, the Black Women Lawyers Association (of which she was one of the founders) had a memorial service to honor her as a prominent lawyer and contributor to the California legal community. Many judges, lawyers, colleagues, and friends attended, as well as my family. Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke (one of the first black congresswoman to represent the state of California) spoke and said that my Aunt Vaino encouraged her to run for the California State Assembly.

My aunt provided free campaign space to help support her in becoming an elected official. Veronica McBeth, another black judge, talked about how my aunt encouraged her to submit her application for a judgeship once she had reached her fifth year of law practice.

My aunt was always trying to help other people to get ahead. She helped court employees get job security. She also helped with the push to eliminate the cap on the mandatory retirement of judges. It used to be that you had to retire at the age of 70, but she didn't want to retire that young. She had a great impact on things that were going to benefit other people, and also herself.

She had tremendous impact on many advancements that benefited other people beyond herself. Today, there are many Americans who can thank Aunt Vaino for the path she helped carve for them �" including those who never met her yet are the beneficiaries of her legacy. She dedicated her life to the betterment of American society.

JM: Do you think her professionalism affected your work ethic and career?

FG My aunt was my mentor. She appreciated and liked the fact that I decided to become a lawyer. She was always trying to convince me to become a judge, and I kept telling her that that was her path and I had my own. I’m happy being an entrepreneur, negotiations expert, and career strategist. I love running The Azara Group, and we discussed my decision to start my own business.

She was very proud of me and my accomplishments, and she was pleased with the schools that I attended the professional decisions that I made, and the law firms that I worked for. She would give me professional and personal advice. If I had a legal question, she would give advice on that, as well.

JM: What kind of work did she do for women/minorities to help acknowledge their presence in the professional workforce? In what ways did she advocate for equality?

FG As I said before, she helped found the Black Women Lawyers Association of LA. She also helped found the National Association of Women Judges, and that was about women of all colors. She helped their advancement and lobbied to create opportunities for women to become judges, not just in California, but across the country. As a result of her work, both of those organizations now have annual awards that they give in her honor. She helped found political organizations, like at the democratic minority conference in LA. This group dedicates to getting black people in elected office. Through that, she became friends with LA Mayor Tom Bradley.

They were very close until she died. She was friends with well-known lawyers that left their mark on the legal community, like Loren Miller who was a civil rights attorney. He wrote most of the briefs for Brown v. Board of Education. These were just some of the people that my aunt knew and supported.

It’s a testament to who she was, her contribution to California’s legal community, and her impact on women and people of color that upon hearing of her death, California Governor Jerry Brown’s office called me. The Governor wanted to share his condolences since he and Aunt Vaino were good friends. He’s the one who appointed her to the Court of Appeal and named her Presiding Justice.

JM: What are the most memorable qualities/stories that you have of your aunt? What is her legacy? What about her most inspired you?

FG She was a woman who was about being polished. She believed in looking great and carrying oneself with pride, respect, and dignity. I knew that if ever I went to her house if I just threw on whatever, I'd hear about it. I'm not saying that I had to dress to the nines, but she believed that women should carry themselves in a certain way. That same ideal of applied to black and professional women, as well as any other woman. To her, when you walked out of your home and welcomed the world, you needed to look presentable.

In a nutshell, that was Vaino. If people weren’t putting in a baseline level of effort and decorum, she wasn’t interested. My family and I miss my Aunt Vaino. I will always remember her as the beautiful, graceful, and accomplished trailblazer that she was �" a black woman from a bygone era who created opportunities for women, blacks, and people of color. To the world, she was a pioneering judge.

She believed black women �" or frankly anyone �" needed to look refined because you’re being judged. She felt that you could accomplish more if you have some gravitas and a smart outfit. She wanted me to carry myself with confidence, look beautiful, and act in a dignified and professional manner. But she didn’t think women should be silent beauties either. She believed that women should be vocal and never mute �" that we have opinions to share and goals to accomplish.

To me, she was family. We loved each other. And I loved how she was a no-nonsense woman who went through life with swagger and charm, a great wardrobe, and the brains and sharp wit to become a notable judge. Without people like my Aunt Vaino to pave the path, many of us wouldn’t have the freedoms and opportunities we have today. We should be grateful she was here and left the door wide open for people like me to walk through it.

My favorite story about Vaino is one that I think sums up a lot of the things she believed in: she loved to travel. She had been to Europe, she traveled across the country, and she had pictures of herself in the 60s boarding planes and looking fabulous. But at a certain point, she stopped traveling. I asked, "Aunt Vaino, why did you stop traveling?" She looked at me, smiled, and said: "Dear girl, I stopped traveling when people stopped dressing for the plane."

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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