Charles H. Dorsey, Jr., ’57, Loyola’s first student of color, led Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau to national prominence
February 18, 2016
Charles H. Dorsey, Jr., faced two seemingly insurmountable obstacles when he first applied to what was then Loyola College in 1948. He’d taken the courses required to qualify for admission, but the schools he attended were unaccredited in the region.
And he was black.
Loyola had never admitted an African American traditional day undergraduate student in its nearly 100-year history. A year prior, newly-appointed president Rev. Francis Xavier Talbot, S.J., committed to desegregating the college at the next opportunity to accept an academically qualified applicant of color.
Dorsey was that applicant.
But he was denied on a technicality: the accreditation obstacle. He reapplied in 1949, determined to pursue a Catholic education (his Catholic roots “went back for generations”). Some Josephites, members of a congregation of Catholic priests whose mission is to serve the African American community, engaged the Jesuits at Loyola to support Dorsey’s admission. This time he got in.
His career of service, advocacy, and leadership spanned the next four decades. The west Baltimore native left Loyola temporarily to serve in the U.S. Air Force and was discharged as a lieutenant after one tour in Korea. After completing his Loyola education in 1957 he enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Law, earning his Juris Doctor in 1961. He practiced law at a firm in Baltimore and worked in the city solicitor’s office until he joined the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau in 1969 as a deputy director. He was named executive director in 1974 and served in that role until his death in 1995 at age 64.
“This country was founded on the concept that everyone is equal under the law,” Dorsey told The Baltimore Sun in 1992.
Maryland Legal Aid is a private, non-profit law firm that provides free civil legal services to low-income people statewide. Dorsey is credited with “propelling the Bureau into the front rank of legal service providers nationally” and expanding its reach to serve the rural and urban poor. He also led a successful campaign to raise public and private funding for a new building—the first headquarters in the organization’s 81-year history—to accommodate the growing staff. That headquarters, next to the War Memorial building across from Baltimore’s city hall, would later be named in his honor.
“This building is a symbol that the law can be a sword and a shield for you. It will help give more people access to the system,” said Dorsey in his interview with The Sun. The Charles H. Dorsey, Jr., Building at 500 East Lexington Street houses Maryland Legal Aid to this day.
Dorsey was the first black attorney to serve on and become chairman of the Maryland state Board of Law Examiners. He was a member of the Baltimore Ethics Board, the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission, and the Inquiry Panel and Review Board. He was president of the Bar Association of Baltimore City from 1986-87 and served on three additional bar associations. His many awards include the Loyola College Alumni Laureate Award, which he received in 1983.
Every two years the National Legal Aid and Defender Association bestows The Charles Dorsey Award to an individual who has provided extraordinary and dedicated service to the equal justice community and to organizations that promote expanding and improving access to justice for low-income people. The American Bar Association’s annual Dorsey Award recognizes exceptional work by a public defender or legal aid lawyer who serve indigent persons, in the employ of legal aid bureaus, indigent defense, or Legal Services Corporation-funded legal organizations providing legal service to the disadvantaged.
Dorsey was married to Agnes Smith for more than 40 years. They had four daughters and five sons. His oldest daughter, Kathleen Dorsey Bellow, is a 1975 graduate of Loyola. His brother-in-law, Paul Bernard Smith, was one of the first persons of color to graduate from Loyola as a traditional day undergraduate student, in 1956. He later became a Catholic priest and served as principal of Holy Angels School in Chicago for 25 years.
Excerpt from “Charles Dorsey’s ‘zest for justice’”, an editorial by The Baltimore Sun published on April 27, 1995, the day after Dorsey’s funeral:
Mr. Dorsey and his staff won many important victories on behalf of poor clients. Often those victories were achieved despite attempts by state and federal government to reduce his agency’s funding. But Mr. Dorsey was a fighter who stoutly resisted the panacea of downsizing if it meant shortchanging justice for the poor.
The legal team Mr. Dorsey built rivaled that of any private law firm in the state. Under his direction, the bureau took many cases to the Supreme Court, including one that successfully challenged federal rules barring children born out of wedlock from receiving Social Security benefits from their deceased fathers. Mr. Dorsey also filed the landmark suit that curbed overcrowding in the state’s prisons…
Charles H. Dorsey Jr. will be remembered as one of Baltimore’s most accomplished lawyers and an inspirational figure by all who shared his vision of equal justice for all.
Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau: A National Leader (NLADA.org, January 2003)
New Legal Aid building symbolizes justice Baltimore provided land for bureau’s offices (Baltimore Sun, July 1992)
Charles H. Dorsey, Jr., 64, legal aid director (Baltimore Sun, April 1995)
Loyola/Notre Dame Library archives
Baltimore’s Loyola, Loyola’s Baltimore (Nicholas Varga, 1990)