THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1997, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Saturday, February 15, 1997 TAG: 9702150225 SECTION: FRONT PAGE: A1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: By KATRICE FRANKLIN, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: SUFFOLK LENGTH: 124 lines
Herman Benn's life is filled with firsts.
In 1958, he was the first African-American member of the state Bar Association . . .
In 1967, he was Richmond's first black assistant city attorney . . .
In 1963, he was the first lawyer to win a legal fight that made it unconstitutional for blacks and whites to be separated in the courtroom . . .
The list goes on.
In 1971, Benn marked a personal first.
He so impressed Marian Waller, a widow and a former elementary school teacher, with his patience and kindness that she agreed to marry him. Later, he would persuade her to study law. Marian passed the bar at 53.
``I thought he was a nice person,'' she recalled of their first encounter. ``. . . It didn't take him long to persuade me to become a lawyer.''
Now, Herman - after 45 years of service - and Marian, who has practiced law for 10, are taking down the Benn & Benn shingle.
They are attending their retirement party today at the Holiday Inn in Suffolk - the town where they've spent the past 23 years of their 26-year marriage.
Looking back, Herman, 85, said he was an unlikely source for breaking racial barriers.
Growing up in the early 1900s, he accepted racial discrimination as a way of life and never had any inclination to change things.
As a child, he simply grew accustomed to the white children in his neighborhood spitting at him out of the school bus window. Blacks didn't ride the bus. So he walked four miles to school.
Herman said he never thought about the separate water fountains or using the back door when he entered restaurants - and much later, while in the Air Force - being forced to work in a separate unit.
Becoming a lawyer to fight racial frustrations was not an ambition until, at 28, he decided not to re-enlist.
``I had experienced so much discrimination, I felt like maybe I could take some actions to correct the situation,'' he said. ``I noticed that black attorneys had won many discrimination cases, and they had come to be recognized as being able to do anything that white attorneys could do.''
Herman moved to Washington and worked as a postal clerk while attending law school. He later graduated from Robert H. Terrell Law School - ``named after the first black judge to sit on the bench in Washington.''
After nearly 50 years, law still excites him.
Of all the cases he's handled, he cherishes most a discrimination suit.
``It was citation number 373 U.S. 61 in 1963,'' he recalled.
He stumbled on the case after he graduated from law school and moved to Richmond. Ford Johnson, the son of a dentist, asked Benn to represent him after he was found in contempt of court for sitting on the white side of traffic court.
When Johnson was asked, he refused to move to the other side.
``Said he was comfortable where he was,'' Herman recalled.
The judge asked him to approach the bench and reminded Johnson that he must sit on the side for blacks. Johnson didn't budge. He was thrown in jail and fined $10.
Herman appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court and won. It set a new precedent for courts everywhere.
Herman first retired in 1974. He'd been in and out of private practice in Richmond. When he wasn't running his own office, he was a city attorney there and an administrative law judge for the federal government.
Herman, born in Surry, wanted to move back to where he spent much of his childhood. Marian hated Northern Virginia's congestion.
Although retired, Herman wasn't ready to quit law.
So he opened his own practice in Suffolk. In 1976, he became the first black assistant commonwealth's attorney for the city and returned to private practice in 1981.
Marian was his secretary.
``Things were pretty bad,'' Marian, 63, recalled. ``At first, it was difficult because he would tell me to do things, and I would take it personally.''
Marian eventually decided she'd go back to school to be recertified to teach. But Herman wanted her to become a lawyer.
She studied under him for three years. Her third try at the bar exam was the charm.
``We didn't do anything special,'' she said. ``The first time I took the test, I found out how much I didn't know. It was quite an experience.''
The Benns listen intently to each other.
``Do you want to say segregation or discrimination?'' asked Marian.
``Oh, discrimination,'' he said, glancing her way.
Suffolk Commonwealth Attorney C. Phillips Ferguson said he'd give anything to know their secret for youthfulness.
``He looks the same now as he did when I hired him years ago,'' Ferguson said.
``Herman did an outstanding job, and he and his wife have done well in their private practice. I don't know anyone who doesn't like him. He's a nice guy, just a good person.''
The Benns have been in the same office since Marian started practicing. Their downtown office on West Washington is about a 20-minute drive from their home in Northern Suffolk.
Marian no longer makes the commute.
``I stopped taking cases really early,'' she said. ``This is the first day I've been in the office this year.''
His office is almost empty - except for a stack of files and a computer with an Alpha Phi Alpha mouse pad, symbolizing his love for his fraternity.
``The attorney who is in our office now is an Alpha,'' he said, smiling.
Clarence H. Brooks is taking over the practice.
Herman specialized in adult criminal and real estate cases.
Marian handled domestic, social security, worker's compensation and personal injury cases.
Helivi Holland, an assistant commonwealth's attorney in Portsmouth, said the Benns will truly be missed.
The couple gave her a job right out of law school, made space for her in their office and let her use their secretary at no charge.
``A lot of people talk about Mr. Benn, but Mrs. Benn has done very well,'' Holland, 31, said. ``Suffolk is going to be missing two very knowledgeable attorneys.''
The Benns say they will have plenty to do, and their work will be carried on.
``There are a lot of lawyers around here,'' Herman said.
``Yeah,'' continued Marian. ``They'll find somebody else. They forget very easily.'' ILLUSTRATION: A LIFE OF FIRSTS
JOHN H. SHEALLY II
Herman and Marian Benn, Suffolk lawyers