Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

W. Ashbie Hawkins (1861-1941)
MSA SC 3520-12415

Biography:

William Ashbie Hawkins, one of Baltimore's first black lawyers, was born in Lynchburg, Virginia on August 2, 1862 to the Rev. Robert Hawkins and his wife, Susie.  On March 14, 1885, he married Ada M. McMechen (b. 1867), also Virginia-born, in Baltimore with the Rev. Benjamin Brown officiating.  They had two daughters, Aldina (Haynes; 1885-1940) and Roberta (West; b. 1891).  Hawkins graduated in 1885 from Centenary Biblical Institute (later to become Morgan College). He attended the University of Maryland School of Law, and was expelled in 1891 when the school resegregated. He completed his law degree at  Howard University in 1892.

After seven years as a public school teacher (1885-1892), Hawkins was admitted to the Maryland bar on January 29, 1897, and quickly set up his own law practice.  Around 1905, Hawkins joined forces with George W. F. McMechen to form the firm of Hawkins and McMechen, which was headquartered initially at 327 St. Paul Street. The firm later moved to 21 E. Saratoga Street, and finally settled at 14 E. Pleasant Street beginning around 1920.  The partnership lasted until Hawkins passed away in 1941.  Hawkins became involved with the independent Republican movement, which featured George M. Lane, in 1897.  He made speeches at Committee of 100 meetings, and was almost selected by the Republican Party as a candidate for office.  In 1911, Hawkins, along with Warner T. McGuinn, got involved in a dispute over a segregation law which was enacted the previous year.  They successfully defended a black man who suffered violence at the hands of whites upset with  his decision to reside in their neighborhood.  The law, designed by Samuel West, was rejected as unconstitutional by the Baltimore City Criminal Court on February 4, 1911.  In October of 1911, Hawkins, outraged at poor sleeping and eating conditions for blacks on Chesapeake Bay ferryboats, took the Baltimore, Chesapeake and Atlantic Railway Company to court. Though his complaint was dismissed, the Public Service Commission did recommend, on February 13, 1912, that the company upgrade its facilities for blacks.

In 1913, Hawkins served as counsel for John H. Gurry, who was indicted for violating another recently enacted segregation ordinance.  The Baltimore City
Criminal Court and the Maryland Court of Appeals found that the law was unconstitutional. Hawkins continued his fight against segregation ordinances by filing an amicus brief on behalf of the Baltimore Branch of the NAACP in the 1917 U.S. Supreme Court case Buchanan v. Warley.

In the 1920s,  Hawkins marries Mary (Mamie) Sorrell, and moves into a new home at 929 Arlington Avenue in Govans.  Hawkins was a pioneer in that
neighborhood as a committee was established in 1917 to attempt to prevent Negro settlement of the area.

Hawkins died from heart disease on April 3, 1941, at Provident Hospital. He had been confined there for seven months, and his terminal sickness lasted for four
years.  He was buried two days later at Mount Auburn Cemetery in South Baltimore.  His survivors included his wife, Mamie, daughter, Roberta, three sisters  (Mrs. Susie Blythe of Jersey City, Mrs. Clara Johnson of Philadelphia, and Mrs. Mamie Simms of Chicago) and two grandchildren.

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