Cape Verdean Pioneers in American Jurisprudence
By Carlos Costa-Rodrigues, Cape Verdean American Lawyers Association (CVALA) President
1897 - 1974
1903 - 1984
Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy
1912 - 2018
Harvard Law School
Calling Alfred Gomes, Antonio Cardozo and George Leighton Cape Verdean pioneers in American jurisprudence without telling their aspirational stories would not do justice to their backgrounds, character and exceptional achievements. Certainly, they represent the first wave of Cape Verdean American jurists at a time when few Cape Verdeans completed elementary school. But their hard-working ethic from an early age, their drive to pursue higher education during an era of few opportunities for black people, and their devotion to the immigrant community should make them legendary figures in the Cape Verdean American history. In fact, these high achievers also became trailblazers for African Americans by opening the doors to enrollment in educational institutions that had not admitted blacks and by holding jobs that had not been offered to blacks.
In this profile of Messrs. Gomes, Cardozo and Leighton, I will discuss their backgrounds, their drive to pursue higher education, their exceptional achievements, and their devotion to the immigrant community and racial justice. Because these pioneers’ passion for education appears to have been the central element of their character, that topic permeates throughout this article. I will conclude by describing their legacies and their status as heroes for the Cape Verdean immigrants in the United States.
A strong work ethic constitutes a universally known Cape Verdean trait, which is the primary reason why whaling vessels from New England often stopped in Cabo Verde to pick up crewmen in the 19th century. Messrs. Gomes, Cardozo and Leighton exhibited this characteristic from a very young age. Mr. Gomes, who arrived in New Bedford, Massachusetts from Cabo Verde in 1904 at the age of seven, worked hard to finance his own college education. Mr. Cardozo, who was also born in Cabo Verde in 1903 and immigrated to the United Stats at the age of seventeen, worked nights at a factory in Connecticut while pursuing high school education. Likewise, Mr. Leighton was a child laborer, who worked in the cranberry bogs, strawberry patches, and blueberry bushes of Cape Cod. After that, he worked as a dishwasher and cook. Mr. Leighton left school as a seventh grader to take a job on an oil tanker sailing from Fall River, Massachusetts to Aruba, ending his public school education. The work ethic displayed by these pioneers serves as proof to all Cape Verdeans - new immigrants working menial jobs to send money back to relatives in homeland, single parents working two jobs to make ends meet, students working hard to finance their education - that our ancestors endured the same, if not more discouraging, experiences. But, more importantly, it should also serve as a reminder that we do have control over our destiny and give us hope that we can change our lives.
Understanding the value of education in personal and professional development, Messrs. Gomes, Cardozo and Leighton diligently sought higher education from topnotch U.S. universities. They did not allow the obstacles of being immigrants, blacks and poor stand in their way. Mr. Gomes became one of the first Cape Verdean-born Americans, if not the very first one, to receive a doctor of jurisprudence degree. He graduated from Boston University Law School in 1923 at a time when black students were subjected to segregation in Boston public schools.
Mr. Cardozo enrolled in Suffolk University, from which he earned a law degree in 1929. This was an amazing accomplishment considering that when Mr. Cardozo arrived in the United States just nine years earlier, he did not speak any English. After graduating from Suffolk University, in an unusual move, Mr. Cardozo then enrolled as a freshman at Harvard University and received a degree in 1933. That same year, Mr. Cardozo enrolled at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (“Fletcher” or the “Fletcher School”) as the only black in the inaugural class of 21 students. The Fletcher School has been the preeminent school for law and diplomacy in the world since its establishment in 1933. Mr. Cardozo would walk for three hours from his house in Roxbury to the Fletcher School in Medford because he could not afford the car fare. After attending classes and working all day, he would return home and soak his feet in a pail of cold water to stay alert to study.
Mr. Leighton graduated from Howard University in 1940, magna cum laude, despite his lack of high school education and while working a variety of unskilled jobs. In fact, Howard University initially enrolled Mr. Leighton on the condition that he would have to prove he could do college work without having attended high school before the University could consider his application as a candidate for a degree, and required him to pay regular tuition and fees while on conditional enrollment status even though he had received an outside scholarship to attend a school of his choice. Mr. Leighton accepted the challenge. This was a brave act given that Mr. Leighton barely spoke English at the time because his parents never became fluent in English as Cape Verdean Kriolu was spoken at home. After graduating from Howard University, Mr. Leighton enrolled in the Harvard University School of Law with full scholarship but had to interrupt his law studies for active duty in World War II. He returned to Harvard in 1945 as a Bronze Star recipient and received his LL.B. degree the following year.
One cannot overemphasize the value of education, as clearly revealed by the dedication of these pioneers. For sure, United States is the greatest country in the world and people can live well without advanced degrees. But education extends one’s horizon. When many Cape Verdean students are quitting school for lack of motivation or not reaching their potential because of inadequate financial resources, the aspirational stories of Messrs. Gomes, Cardozo and Leighton might be the impetus for such students to stay in school.
Turning to these pioneers’ civic affairs and public service, their contributions in those arenas are equally admirable. While trying to develop their individual private law practice, these high achievers also devoted substantial time to civic affairs and public service. After graduation, Mr. Gomes became one of New Bedford’s most important civic leaders and was especially concerned with promoting the aspirations and advancement of the Cape Verdean people in the United States and Cabo Verde. Being an extremely successful fundraiser and philanthropist, Mr. Gomes organized many initiatives to address community needs, established various scholarships and awards to benefit Cape Verdean American youth, donated significant funds to various civic causes, promoted many cultural events, and served on many boards of non-profit institutions.
Mr. Cardozo, who co-founded the first black law firm in Boston in 1961, was the director of the Portuguese American Cultural Society, the Portuguese American Federation, and the Cambridge Organization of Portuguese Americans, a social service agency for immigrants. Mr. Cardozo’s ties to the Portuguese communities stem from his early years in Portugal as a youngster before immigrating to the United States.
Mr. Leighton spent many years as a private lawyer fighting nationwide for, among other things, racial integration. In fact, he was even jailed for conspiracy to incite a riot for representing a black family that wanted to move into a white neighborhood resulting in a riot by the enraged white neighbors who set the house on fire to prevent the move. Rather than charging the rioters, the government indicted and arrested Mr. Leighton for inciting the riot. His friend Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African-American on the U.S. Supreme Court represented Mr. Leighton. After a few days, the charge was dismissed. Mr. Leighton would later reminisce that the incident taught him an indelible lesson: that a grand jury could indict an innocent person and “how it felt to be wrongfully accused.”
Mr. Leighton then became the president and general counsel of the Chicago branch of the NAACP for several years and subsequently served in the state and federal bench for 23 years until retiring at age 75 in 1987. At the time of his appointment to the federal bench by President Gerald Ford, Ebony Magazine listed Mr. Leighton as one of the “most influential Black men in America.” As a judge, Mr. Leighton earned the admiration of his peers for his intellect, temperament, and courage to rule in favor of innocent defendants in high profile prosecutions by the government. After retiring from the federal bench, Judge Leighton joined the law firm of Earl Beal & Associates where he worked until he reached 99 years of age.
Mr. Leighton was also an adjunct professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago from 1964 to 2004 where he taught Criminal Procedure and Prisoners’ rights. During his memorable legal career, Mr. Leighton mentored many young Chicago attorneys including Barak Obama who would later become the first black to be elected as President of the United States.
U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt said in a speech following his inauguration in 1901 that “This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.” Through their civic involvement and public service many years later, Messrs. Gomes, Cardozo and Leighton certainly heeded President Roosevelt’s call to make America a great nation not just for a few but for all of its inhabitants. For example, during his career as an attorney, Mr. Leighton became known as a fierce advocate for racial integration, fair housing, ability for blacks to serve on jury, and voting rights. As he ended his legal career in 2012, Mr. Leighton emphasized this spirit of helping the underprivileged during his own speech at the NAACP breakfast held at the University of Massachusetts where he told the crowd “Don’t forget to devote your time to the poor, the voiceless, the oppressed, the not-guilty innocent who are prosecuted in our courtrooms.” Just this unrelenting focus alone on the disadvantaged classes makes these pioneers legendary figures in the Cape Verdean American history.
The historical legacies of these iconic figures serve as a source of inspiration to Cape Verdeans across the board: immigrants, struggling students, successful professionals, and community leaders. But their legacies also transcend the ethnic boundaries as they paved the way for African Americans to serve on the boards of higher educational institutions and to hold positions in the judicial system. Mr. Cardozo was the driving force behind the establishment of the Fletcher Alumni Association and became the first Fletcher graduate to receive the Distinguished Service Award from Tufts. In 1968, he became the first black and the first representative of Fletcher elected to the Tufts Board of Trustees. Mr. Leighton was the first African-American lawyer to sit on the Board of Managers of the Chicago Bar Association, the first African-American judge to serve as a Chancellor in the Circuit Court of Cook County and the first African-American judge to sit on the Illinois Appellate Court. These achievements opened doors to enrollment in higher educational institutions that had not admitted blacks and unlocked jobs that had not been offered to blacks. At a time of resounding public resentment against immigrants in certain segments of the American society, being able to reference such contributions by our ancestors should be gratifying to every Cape Verdean.
The aspirational stories of Messrs. Gomes, Cardozo and Leighton teach us that succeeding in the United States as Cape Verdean immigrants requires a combination of insatiable desire to learn, persistence and perseverance to thrive, a spirit of gratitude, hard-working ethic, commitment to delayed gratification, and appreciation of challenges in the motherland. They took these characteristics to another level. In doing so, they solidified their positions as Cape Verdean pioneers in American jurisprudence and earned distinction during their illustrious careers.
When searching for a place for Messrs. Gomes, Cardozo and Leighton in the history of Cape Verdean Americans, they should be afforded the same adulation ascribed to the American and Cape Verdean founding fathers. Americans admire Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, the early jurists in the America history who were also among the founding fathers of the American Revolution, for their accomplishments, fame and high intellect. Likewise, Cape Verdeans cherish Amilcar Cabral, the founding father of the movement for the independence of Cabo Verde, for his vision, intellect and leadership. The Cape Verdean pioneers in American jurisprudence should be viewed in the same manner for their tenacity, civic involvement, intellectual capacity, and exceptional achievements.
In fact, going one step further by labeling them as heroes to Cape Verdean Americans would be appropriate. The Oxford dictionary defines “hero” as “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” The term comes from the ancient Greeks. For them, a hero was a mortal who had done something beyond the normal scope of human experience leaving an immortal memory behind when the person died and thus receiving worship reserved for the gods. Our pioneers performed so many extraordinary acts in the face of great adversity and difficult situations, such as walking for six hours to pursue graduate education, excelling in their studies at top institutions despite language barriers, and accepting jail time as a price of fighting segregation and racial injustice. In doing so, they also left a path for us to follow. We may not measure up to their lofty standards, but it behooves us to do our best despite being underprivileged and despite the obstacles in our path.
About the CVALA and Carlos Costa-Rodrigues: The Cape Verdean American Lawyers Association is a nonprofit corporation organized exclusively for charitable, educational and scientific purposes. The CVALA’s core mission is to promote professional development and advancement of law students and lawyers of Cape Verdean descent and to raise awareness of legal issues that have an impact on the Cape Verdean community. The CVALA's president, Carlos Costa-Rodrigues is a former prosecutor and current federal attorney.