James Hall, civil rights attorney with Smithfield roots, dies at 69

Published 10:55 am Tuesday, January 9, 2024

A prominent Milwaukee civil rights attorney with roots in Smithfield died Jan. 1.

According to reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and his obituary, James H. Hall Jr. was born in 1954 in Suffolk to peanut farmer James Sr. and Elsie Hall, and was among the first Black students in Isle of Wight County to attend the old Smithfield High on James Street when the school fully integrated during the 1969-70 school year as Hall entered ninth grade.

The Sentinel reports Hall worked with another attorney, Lloyd Barbee, on a plan to desegregate Milwaukee Public Schools stemming from a 1976 case Barbee had won after presenting evidence that Blacks students were being bused to white-majority schools but taught in separate classrooms.

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In the 1990s, Hall served as co-counsel in a landmark racial redlining class-action suit the Milwaukee NAACP brought against American Family Insurance, which resulted in a $16 million settlement.

Smithfield Vice Mayor Valerie Butler, a high school classmate of Hall’s, remembers her friend as “very smart” and “most likely to succeed.”

“James and I both graduated from SHS at a time when schools were forced to integrate,” Butler told The Smithfield Times.

“Through the years I had not kept up with him and only knew he was an attorney in Milwaukee,” she said. “But when I heard of his death, it was so piercing. Little did I know he fought for integration of schools when he first moved there and continued to advocate for civil rights and represent the marginalized communities.”

Hall “had a fulfilling life and makes his hometown proud of his accomplishments,” Butler said. “He will be sorely missed.”

A funeral is planned for Jan. 13 at noon at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Smithfield. Visitation is from 10 a.m. to noon at the church.