To celebrate our 40th anniversary in 2017, Virginia Legal Aid Society is telling 40 stories that reflect our history, our people and the cases and events that have made the past 40 years so memorable. These will be released over 40 weeks, finishing at our gala celebration on November 17 in Farmville at the Moton Museum.
In part I of our story of Judge Joel Cunningham Sr., we told of how his belief in the power of the law to right wrongs led him to Virginia Legal Aid Society.
The first major case Joel remembers from his VLAS days involved a suspension of a student at a Halifax County school. The issue was equal justice. The girl had been dismissed from the school, even though others involved in similar cases had received more lenient punishment. Joel said, “The school board attorney called me up and said, ‘I agree. Let’s work out something.’ ”
Joel also represented the parents of a 7-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who wanted her school to develop an individualized Education Program for her, one of many cases that urged schools to tailor customized instruction to help special education students.
Another early case involved a Chatham restaurant that would not serve African Americans, echoing Joel’s experience from about a decade earlier.
Joel recruited a Danville real estate agent and a car dealer, both African American, and a white volunteer. Each walking in on his own, the three sat down at separate tables. The white customer was served promptly; the two African Americans were ignored. In a break for Joel and his case, a sheriff’s deputy, in uniform, was sitting at a nearby table and saw the whole thing.
Another phone call from an opposing attorney: “What is it going to take to end this?” Joel asked for and received a monetary settlement and a promise that the restaurant would serve African American customers from that moment on.
VLAS sued another car dealer for what it saw as the dealer’s persistent practice of selling a car to a person who wasn’t in a position to afford it, repossessing the car, winning a deficiency judgment and repeating the process with another buyer of the same car.
If it sounds like VLAS would soon transform every town from Lynchburg and Danville to Suffolk, in a short time, that story suffered a plot twist.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan attempted to abolish the Legal Services Corporation, set up by Congress in 1974 to launch and fund legal aid organizations such as VLAS. Congress and the White House reached a compromise in which LSC survived but lost 25% of its budget.
LSC provides about one-third of VLAS’s funding today; in 1981 it was a much larger share, making the cuts more severe. VLAS laid off one third of its attorneys and paralegals, and never recovered those positions.
“We were stymied in our growth, building on that foundation, with the Reagan Administration cuts. And I don’t think we’ve fully recovered from that today,” he said. “It was a very destructive blow.
“The Reagan doctrine had tremendous impact on people who wanted to stay in Legal Aid,” Joel said. “They couldn’t afford the uncertainty of whether they’d have a job.”
In fact, Joel says that’s eventually what drove him into private practice in 1987. By this time, he had three children. “I was still committed to Legal Aid services, but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Opportunities with Virginia’s major law firms were slim for African Americans at the time, so Joel started his own firm in Halifax. “I’m happy with the way things worked out,” he said. “I found I could make a living still serving the poor and to change and make things better.”
Up to 60 percent of his work was Social Security cases, the kind he did fairly often at VLAS. Most of the rest were personal injury cases, but he also did contract work and occasional several other areas of the law.
His civic activities blossomed. He became head of the local hospital’s board of directors. He and other area leaders started a mentor role-model program, after Joel and Harvey Dillard, his high school football coach, spent a week observing a similar program in Texas.
He integrated Halifax Country Club, followed shortly thereafter by his golfing buddy, Bristol Martin Jr., former middle school principal. A
generation earlier, the club provided a second job for his father, who waited tables there but wasn’t allowed to play on the course. Now, Joel was helping Halifax County’s economic development efforts. The group found that more and more companies looking to relocate had African American executives, some of whom played golf. Would they really feel welcome in a place where they could not find a golf course that would allow them to play?
“If we were going to have a community attractive to industry,” Joel said, “we had to present a wholesome, unified image, and shed all vestiges of segregation.”
The club, after some initial resistance, agreed. Today, “we have a wonderful, accepting golf club,” Joel said. “It’s not public, but anybody who wishes to play there is welcome.”
All of these efforts kept him away from home many an evening. He regrets losing out on family time, missing more than his fair share of games his children played. When his wife would bring this up, he’d say, “Honey, somebody has to do this.”
He continued to work closely with VLAS, taking pro bono cases, often handling appeals in federal court for Social Security claims.
Next: Joel becomes a trailblazing judge