Sidney Barthwell Jr.
Born September 1, 1947
Sidney Barthwell Jr. is a magistrate in Detroit, and in this capacity he is a judicial officer in a lower court whose jurisdiction is limited to the trial of misdemeanors, moving vehicular violations, and preliminary hearings on more serious charges. After attending what was then called Cranbrook School for Boys, he enrolled at Wayne State University, where he graduated in 1986. He taught second grade for half a year and was admitted to Harvard Law School in 1987. He received a law degree from Harvard in 1990 and was hired by Dickinson Wright, a major law firm that at the time employed 230 attorneys. After two years, Barthwell left Dickinson Wright and decided to focus his career on issues critical to the African American communities of Detroit. As one of the six magistrates appointed in the city, Barthwell works at the Thirty-sixth District Court and feels that through his efforts he can have an “impact directly on people’s lives every day.”
I grew up on the near west side of Detroit in an area known as the Boston Edison neighborhood. I think we moved into that house in 1949. My father was a pharmacist, and he lived in that house until the day he died, June 23, 2005. He owned a chain of drugstores. He also made his own ice cream. He had thirteen flavors. He used to make a half million gallons a year of ice cream. It was very popular at the time–Barthwell's Ice Cream. He was from Cordele, Georgia, originally. It’s the county seat of Crisp County, Georgia, and it’s about sixty–five miles south of Macon, Georgia, straight down I–75. His family migrated to Detroit around 1919. His father’s name was Jack Barthwell. I think my father had seven brothers and sisters.
My grandfather’s work was agricultural in the South. But when he came up here, he worked at Ford for a lot of years in the foundry at the River Rouge complex. And eventually, he died as a result of iron particles in his lungs.
My father died in his one hundredth year. I think he had eleven pharmacies at his height. He had three ice-cream stores. You know, back in those days, pharmacies all had soda fountains.
Well, I grew up in a black middle-class environment. Detroit was kind of unique, but it wasn’t totally unique. I think there’s certain components of what I’m about to identify in a lot of major urban areas, but Detroit and Washington, D.C., are places that come to mind. Maybe to a lesser degree Chicago. It’s unique in that there was this commingling between economic classes in the black community. So what you had when I was coming up, you had guys who were of a middle–class background whose fathers were professionals or whatever, in the black community, hanging out with guys who were street guys. So there was a lot of that intermingling because if you wanted to go party, for example, as a teenager in Detroit, you had to be able to fight—or at least have some kind of strategy so you didn’t get your ass kicked every time you went out to a party. My entrée was basketball. I was a good basketball player, so I knew all the basketball players around the city, because I used to play at all the playgrounds. That’s where all the good games were, and you got to know all the guys playing ball, and they were also the hoodlums. So you go to the party at night, and a guy might say, you know, “Don’t bother him. He’s my boy.”
These days, I might shoot a few baskets occasionally, but it’s too physical for me. I just run. Right now, I run and play golf. I'm an average golfer. I was still playing a lot of ball when I was living in New York in the seventies. I played all over Harlem.
In Detroit, there wasn’t much black-white commingling. I don’t know what you know about metropolitan Detroit, but residentially, it’s an extremely segregated scenario, and it still is. There’s more diversity in the South than there is in the North, even though it was unintended. It was just an unintended result of the proximity of the races from another era.
During the time I grew up, the neighborhood was all white. When I started elementary school in the early 1950s, there were just two African Americans in my kindergarten class. This was a public school called Roosevelt Elementary School. By the time I came out of the sixth grade, I think there were maybe five or six white people in the class of thirty–five. So it was a neighborhood in transition.
It was Jewish and Anglo prior to the time we moved in; my next–door neighbor was Carl Levin, who’s now a U.S. senior senator from the state of Michigan. His brother’s named Sander Levin: He’s a congressperson from a suburban district in Detroit. The house we moved into was once occupied by the brother of Cardinal Mooney, who was at one time leader of the Archdiocese of Detroit. So, it was an interesting neighborhood.
Detroit was a place where there was a commingling of socioeconomic classes in very close proximity. So the public school that I went to in elementary school drew from a cross section of socioeconomic families. The street I lived on, which was Boston Boulevard, was definitely upper class at the time. Really big houses, four, five, six thousand square feet. That sort of thing. Three–car garages. But the neighborhood did change. Today, Detroit is virtually all black. I think the city’s probably 85 percent African American now.
In the fifties, the percentage was maybe 10 or 15 percent African American, 25 percent, possibly, something like that. So what changed is the fact that so many white people left Detroit. White flight. I think at its height, Detroit was approaching two million in population, which was in the early 1950s. And now it’s about nine hundred and fifty thousand, maybe. So a little over a million people left the city in about a thirty–five–year period, but most dramatically between, I would say, the early 1960s and maybe 1990. The bulk of those people left at that time, and they were almost all white and almost all middle class or upper middle class. [But many of those who left in the late 1980s were probably more black than white.] So what you’re left with is a city full of predominantly low–income people. And it’s not a phenomenon that’s unique to Detroit, though I think that the extremeness of the phenomenon is kind of unique to Detroit. It was so pervasive, and the riots in 1967 obviously accelerated the process.
In retrospect, my childhood probably was [difficult], but I think when you're a child, you don’t know anything else. Obviously, when I was five, six, seven, eight years old, I wasn’t aware of the demographics of white flight or transitional neighborhoods or things like that. I was aware of the fact that the color of my classmates was changing. And it was a period of time when there was great social upheaval in the country. The civil–rights movement was arguably entering its highest period of activity, or certainly a high period of activity shortly after or during the Brown v. Board of Education
period, and all of the struggle against segregation—legal segregation, in the South, de jure segregation—was a topic of the highest national concern at that time. And it was something that African Americans were and continue to be extremely aware of as an oppressed people, if you will.
It was something that I was aware of at the time, but I wasn’t fully aware of it. I wasn’t well versed on the sociological impact of things. But I was aware of the fact that there was a civil–rights movement going on and that I was a black man in America. And I was aware of the fact that there was discrimination in America, in the metropolitan Detroit area. I went to elementary school in the Detroit public schools. It was a school called Roosevelt Elementary School, named after Theodore Roosevelt. And it was a big elementary school; there were about two thousand students. They used to have really big schools in the public school system in Detroit. I was on a campus with a middle school and a high school. The middle school was called Durfee Junior High School at the time. And the high school was Detroit Central High School.
After the sixth grade, I went to private school. I went to a school called Cranbrook School for Boys, which is in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. It was a boarding school. It was named after a village in Kent, England, which is where one of the founders’ antecedents came from. The founder of Cranbrook was a gentleman named John Booth. He was the publisher of the Detroit News
. And he founded Cranbrook in the mid-1920s.
One of my classmates was Mitt Romney, current governor of Massachusetts. Other graduates of Cranbrook included Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers fame, and there was someone named Peter Dawkins, who was a Heisman Trophy winner, as well as a military man back in the fifties who was a graduate of Cranbrook. But there were a lot of distinguished and not-so-distinguished graduates of Cranbrook. I was the only black person in my class, class of 1965.
Well, the cultural change between being in the inner city and being out at Cranbrook was extreme. Being in a virtually all–black environment in Detroit as opposed to being in a virtually all–white environment out in Bloomfield Hills, which is twenty miles north of Detroit, was very dramatic. And living there as a boarding student from the seventh grade on, from age twelve or thirteen…I was out there for six years.
The good thing was, I could go home on weekends. They had a policy: You couldn’t go home every weekend, but you could go home roughly two out of four per month. So I had lots of access to going home. But at the same time, I was really separated from the city. Culturally, I was totally separated from the city. The cultural chasm between what was going on in the inner city in Detroit and what was going on in Bloomfield Hills was huge, immense.
An ongoing tension throughout the entire time I was at Cranbrook was the fact that after a couple of years, I really didn’t want to be there. In my youthful, inimitable wisdom, I decided that I’d be better off at Cass Technical High School, which was the top public school in Detroit—which, incidentally, was the alma mater of my father. But that’s not why I wanted to go there. I wanted to go there because it was coeducational. There were a bunch of fine young girls there. And I was a basketball player. I wanted to play in the Detroit Public School League.
[From Cranbrook] I went to Wayne State University in Detroit. I started in the sixties. I dropped out, moved to New York, did different things—was writing poetry and just kind of hanging out, for lack of a better term. Then when I came back to Detroit, I worked with my father for a number of years, and then I went back to college. I went back in 1984. I was a sophomore in ’84. I was on academic probation. I had dropped out of school without doing it officially. As a result, I got a few E’s. You know, it didn't help my GPA any. But in any event, when I went back, I did very well. I graduated in December of ’86. Then I taught in the Detroit public schools, second grade, for a half a year. Then I went to Harvard Law School in September of 1987, and I got my law degree from Harvard in June of 1990.
When I was younger, I had an alcohol problem that I overcame by myself, basically. It’s never by yourself, but when I say by myself, I mean without the benefit of Alcoholics Anonymous or any of those kinds of organizations. I quit drinking, and six months later I quit smoking, and I started running. I’ve run fourteen marathons since then.
I’m a child of the sixties, so to speak. So I was involved with everything there was to be involved with. See, my background is the black power movement, or militant black politics, particularly in the sixties and the seventies. Now, I’m a magistrate.
A magistrate is a judge. But we don’t do trials. We do traffic court for the city of Detroit. We do small–claims court, claims of three thousand dollars or less. We do all of the felony arraignments for the city of Detroit. Civil infractions. It’s a challenge. I’ve been a magistrate for about eight months. Prior to being appointed magistrate, I was a solo [law] practitioner for fourteen years.
When I came out of Harvard, I worked at a big law firm, called Dickinson Wright, for the first two years. At the time I worked there, there were 230 attorneys in this firm. It’s a big majority–white law firm. That’s a whole issue for another book; maybe I’ll write that one. It’s really amazing to me. You think of the law—at least I did, before I got into it—as being a very progressive area. You think that laws by their nature are inherently concerned with fair play and people being treated properly and things of that nature—antidiscriminatory practices. But in fact, what I found out—and I really didn't know about this until I got to Harvard, even though I was forty years old when I started Harvard and considered myself to be politically aware—I was not aware of the fact that the legal profession was so conservative and so backwards in terms of their own progression and in terms of promoting diversity. And they still aren’t [promoting diversity]. It was shocking to me. I had no idea that the profession was lagging so far behind even American society. But it’s a bifurcated profession. Eighty–five percent of all lawyers in this country are in firms of five lawyers or smaller, or they’re solo practitioners. The other 15 percent are in big firms and/or corporate in–house lawyers or doing public–interest work of some sort. And those are the lawyers who run the profession. That 15 percent. They’re also the lawyers who make the big money, and they’re not who was involved in the civil-rights movement. The lawyers who were involved in the civil–rights movement were people like Thurgood Marshall and their cohorts.
[A lot of local people who fought these cases on a day–by–day basis were up against the corporate legal system. The corporate lawyers were the obstacles. That’s whom they were fighting in the courts.] Exactly. And that’s who continues to be the obstacle. I think there’s 257 large firms in this country that are normally monitored for various demographic information, and in those firms, they’re all majority–white firms, and they all have two hundred or more attorneys in them. And in those firms, the lawyers make the really good money, big money. They’re the firms that Harvard and Yale and Stanford, etc., etc., feed. Those firms continue to have 4 percent of their numbers or less African American, and 2 percent African Americans or less are partners. That’s today, and the numbers were identical at the time I started Harvard Law School, at the time I graduated, and the percentage of African Americans just hasn't changed. The structure of most major law firms in the United States is so resistant to change, it’s unbelievable. When I was at Harvard—Harvard is a great place. Harvard believes in diversity; they’ve been diverse since the late 1960s in real numbers. Their numbers match societal numbers in terms of percentages and diversity. But when I was at Harvard, each class at Harvard Law School had 540 students, year in and year out. There were sixty–five African Americans in my class, and of the males, which was roughly half of that number, nobody got hired for a summer job from these majority–white firms—almost nobody—until almost the end of the first year. It was amazing to me. These were all folks, including myself, who sent out hundreds of letters seeking summer internships. And my white colleagues, counterparts, classmates, rapidly received multiple offers, seven, eight, nine apiece. It wasn’t about grades, because at Harvard Law School, there were no grades [in the late 1980s] for first–year students until the end of the year. So everyone who sent out applications had the same qualifications. But those big firms were just not hiring black male students from Harvard Law School as summer associates, even at that late date.
Excerpted from Untold Glory by Alan Govenar. Copyright © 2007 by Alan Govenar. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.