LOS ANGELES -- The legal establishment in Los Angeles was segregated in 1937 when Walter L. Gordon Jr., a black lawyer, pulled on a childhood connection to set up his new practice. The former newspaper carrier was given office space "three steps" from the pressroom of the California Eagle, a black weekly founded in 1879 by an escaped slave.
The newspaper's location proved fortunate. Being on Central Avenue, "the city's black thoroughfare," Gordon later said, he benefited from being one of the first black lawyers to hang a shingle in that neighborhood.
He kept his practice in the area for 65 years, defending the famous -- jazz singer Billie Holiday was a steady client -- and untold others.
Gordon, who was 103, died April 16 at California Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles, his family said.
He once estimated that there were only 30 black lawyers in the state when he entered the profession, and he made a point of mentoring those who followed him.
When veteran civil rights lawyer Leo Branton Jr. arrived in Los Angeles in 1949 to practice, "there were no black law firms, only individual practitioners. The white law firms were not hiring black lawyers, and the L.A. County Bar Association had a 'Caucasians only' clause in its constitution.
"Young black lawyers had no place to go, had it not been for Walter Gordon . . . He made a tremendous contribution," Branton said.
In the early 1940s, Gordon represented dozens of railroad dining-car waiters whom the government wanted to penalize for not reporting their tips. When the tax-evasion case was settled, each porter was ordered to pay a $25 fine.
During the same era, he defended a group of black deputy sheriffs who made an off-duty arrest while armed and were prosecuted for carrying weapons.