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Oklahoma's first black chief justice stresses importance of role models

Hundreds attended the historic swearing-in ceremony at the Oklahoma Capitol.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Published: January 4, 2013

Colbert said it's an interesting time for him to become chief justice.

In addition to the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed that those enslaved in Confederate territory to be forever free, this week saw his law school classmate, David Lewis, sworn in as presiding judge of the five-member Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.

Lewis was the first black person appointed to the state's highest criminal appellate court.

Next week, House Speaker-elect T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, is expected to be elected speaker, becoming the first black person to hold that powerful post in Oklahoma.

Colbert said a painting outside the Supreme Court courtroom in the state judicial building across from the Capitol serves as a reminder of those who fought for civil rights.

Among those depicted in the painting is B.C. Franklin, a black lawyer who guided many residents through the aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot and fought the injustices of Oklahoma's official racist policies such as the Jim Crow laws, which provided for separation of the races.

In his own family, his great-great grandfather, born in 1845, was a slave in Georgia until at the age of 17 he ran away from the plantation and joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War.

His grandfather, Ed Colbert, born in 1894, was a key role model for him. He had to drop out of school when he was in the sixth grade to support his family, which included helping pay for his younger brother's college education.

A look at his career

Colbert was born in Oklahoma City and graduated from Sapulpa High School.

He attended Eastern Oklahoma State College and earned his bachelor of science degree from Kentucky State University in 1973.

After serving in the Army, he earned a master's of education degree from Eastern Kentucky University in 1976 and taught in Chicago's public schools.

He received his juris doctorate from the University of Oklahoma in 1982, and served as assistant dean at Marquette University Law School from 1982 until 1984.

He then served as an assistant Oklahoma County district attorney from 1984 until 1986.

He maintained a private law practice in Oklahoma City from 1986 until 2000.

Colbert was appointed in 2000 by then-Gov. Frank Keating to serve as a judge on the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals.

He served on the appellate court until Henry named him to the Supreme Court.

Henry glad he stayed

Henry, who during his eight years as governor appointed six of the nine justices serving on the bench, said he was surprised that Colbert considered leaving the Supreme Court.

“I'm glad that he didn't because he is one of the finest individuals that I ever met and has served this court honorably and with great intellect and distinction and will continue to do so now in the role of chief justice,” he said.

“So I'm glad that he decided to stick around.”