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Trailblazing Judge Mary Johnson Lowe '54 Honored with Named Scholarship to Promote Student Diversity and Inclusion

02/15/2022
The late Mary Johnson Lowe ’54, the first Black student to serve as editor-in-chief of the Brooklyn Law Review and the second Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary, has been honored with a new scholarship in her name. Funded by a pledge of $100,000 from Dean Michael T. Cahill and his wife Rosalyn Scaff, the scholarship will support Brooklyn Law School students from underrepresented groups. Cahill and Scaff's gift to the Law School recognizes Lowe’s lifelong dedication to equal justice and civil rights—in the courtroom and in the community.

“This scholarship honors a woman who made history, at Brooklyn Law School and beyond, and reaffirms a commitment to continuing our own history as a school of opportunity for people from all backgrounds, who can find a home here and thrive,” said Cahill. “Judge Lowe was outstanding at the Law School and in her practice. In addition to serving as editor-in-chief of the Brooklyn Law Review, she was president of her class, and she graduated with honors. It’s remarkable to note that she graduated from law school in the same year that the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision struck down segregation in the nation’s public schools. That context underscores how extraordinary she and her achievements were—ultimately leading to her momentous appointment as a U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York.”

The Lowe Scholarship joins the Law School’s 26 existing diversity-scholarship and student-support funds created by supporters committed to broadening opportunities in legal education and in the profession. “This scholarship harkens back to our tradition of nurturing the talents of students like Mary Johnson Lowe, while also looking forward and promoting inclusion today and in the future,” Cahill said.

The Path to the Federal Bench

Lowe’s dreams of becoming a lawyer began in her childhood, when her family lived next door to the NYPD’s 28th Precinct, on 123rd Street in Harlem, and she saw lawyers, prisoners, and police. That’s what piqued her sense of fairness and motivated her to become a lawyer—to defend the defenseless.

“It sparked her interest, and she would walk around the house carrying a briefcase, pretending to be an attorney,” said Lowe’s son Edward Lowe, M.D.

After Lowe received a bachelor's degree in 1952 from Hunter College, she began to realize that dream when she entered Brooklyn Law School as one of only a handful of women of color in her class.

“It’s where she developed that lifelong love for the law,” said Lowe’s daughter Bess Johnson Michael. “She thrived there.” Lowe was joined in those years by other future history-makers: Herman Badillo ’54, the first Puerto Rican elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, was on the editorial board for the Law Review during Lowe’s tenure, and David Dinkins ’56, New York City’s first Black mayor, was an underclassman.

Lowe’s law school life was far from easy. She was also simultaneously working part time as a legal secretary and caring for two young children, while her first husband, Edward Hatfield Lowe, was serving in the Army in Korea.

“She said she would come home from class and study, have dinner with the kids, go to sleep early, and get up at 3 a.m. to study some more, go to work, then take the train to school, and she did that over and over again,” said Michael.

Lowe persevered and became an accomplished student. At graduation, she was awarded the William Payson Richardson Memorial Prize, which allowed her to pursue a master’s degree. She had set her sights on Harvard, but was turned down because she was a woman. She attended Columbia University instead, and received her Master of Laws in 1955.

“She got her revenge,” said Edward Lowe, with a laugh. “She sent both her daughters to Harvard.” Lowe herself did eventually go on to Harvard, but not as a student: she taught a trial advocacy seminar for many years, a role for which she was recruited by Derrick Bell, Harvard Law’s first Black tenured professor. (Daughter Leslie Lowe, who died in 2017, was an attorney and activist specializing in environmental law. Bess Johnson Michael, Lowe’s daughter with second husband Ivan A. Michael, is currently a Senior Policy Analyst for International Relations at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Edward Lowe followed his mother’s path to Columbia, where he received his medical degree.)

After law school, Lowe joined with her good friends and fellow study group members Lester Raskin ’54 and Lew Rappoport ’54 to found the firm Raskin, Rappoport & Lowe in 1955. “My mother was always intrepid,” said Edward Lowe. “When she was a criminal defense attorney, she would go out and investigate the crime scenes. One of the people who was instrumental in helping her was a police officer named Aubrey Ferguson, who was the first Black person to make first-grade detective in the NYPD. He would often help her investigate late at night in the alleys of the South Bronx.”

Lowe became a judge of the Criminal Court of the City of New York in 1971, and in 1973 was named an Acting State Supreme Court Justice assigned to the Manhattan Supreme Court's Centralized Narcotics Term. A term on the Supreme Court in Bronx County followed before she was elected a justice of the State Supreme Court. The New York State Bar Association presented her with an award for her outstanding judicial contribution to criminal justice in 1978.

Making History

When Lowe was nominated to the U.S. District Court by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, only 15 of 400 federal judges were Black; only five were women; and only one before her, Constance Baker Motley, was both.

The late 1970s were also a time when women’s rights and voting rights were at the forefront. In a 1981 case, Women in City Gov't United v. City of New York, Lowe ruled that a New York City pension system illegally discriminated against women, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when it required higher contributions of them despite receiving lower retirement benefits, simply because, on average, women lived longer than men. In the 1986 case Pitt v. Black, brought by the Coalition for the Homeless, she gave voice to the disenfranchised, ordering New York City election officials to permit homeless people living in nontraditional circumstances to register to vote. As she wrote in her decision, they could identify “a specific location within a political community which they consider their ‘home base,’ to which they return regularly, manifest an intent to remain for the present, and a place from which they can receive messages and be contacted.”

In the 1980s, among the high-profile Southern District cases that Lowe oversaw was the 1988 racketeering trial of eight men—including Tony Salerno, reputed boss of the Genovese crime family—who were ultimately convicted. As the trial drew to a close after many weeks, Michael recalled an unsigned note was delivered to her mother’s chamber that read, “A white limousine is being sent for you.” That was a mob threat meaning “we’re going to kill you,” Michael said. Lowe and her family members were subsequently given 24-hour security by U.S. Marshals. “My mother told me that she understood the dangers of the job, but that she would never give in and let criminals dictate what she had to do,” she said. “She was an officer of the court and she had to uphold the law.”

Lowe assumed senior status on the court in 1991 and then divided her time between New York and Las Vegas. “She thought about retiring but that wouldn’t work for her because she was so engaged with people and the law,” said Michael. Lowe continued her judicial work until her death in 1999. At her memorial service, family, colleagues, and friends, echoed that deep engagement. Among those were the Southern District’s then Chief Judge Thomas Griesa and Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who shared Lowe’s roots in the Bronx and would in 2009 be confirmed as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Activist for Social Justice

Lowe came from a family with strong activist roots—among them was an uncle, Lyman Johnson, who successfully fought to desegregate the University of Kentucky. She carried on the tradition as the New York State Education Chair for the NAACP, and as an active member of the National Urban League, National Council of Negro Women, and National Organization for Women, among other organizations. She also provided pro bono representation for upstate migrant farm workers fighting for their rights. “These workers had to pay for everything on these farms—the tools they used, their lodging and food—and were basically in indentured servitude,” said Michael. “My mother represented them. I think that showed her true commitment to humanity.”

Lowe also battled racism very close to home. In one instance, after submitting a bid for a home in the then all-white New York City neighborhood of City Island, with then-husband Ivan Michael, the neighbors took up a collection to outbid them in order to keep them out. “My father found a flyer that said they were going to blow up the house,” said Michael. “This was 1970, not the 1940s!” The couple worked with the local police chief to put a stop to the threats, then stood their ground, bought the home, and lived on City Island for years.

Michael remembers this episode as yet another important life lesson from her mother, whose legacy endures in her family and beyond.

“My mother taught us a lot of things. To stand up to bullies, to master your craft, to be fierce about defending others and yourself when necessary, to be a person of integrity and honor, and as a Black woman to never let color limit how high you can reach.”