The Catholic University of America

Feb. 22, 2016

Black History Month Display Honors Law Alumnus

  Alumnus Otis Milton Smith is highlighted in a Black History Month display at the Columbus School of Law.

Otis Milton Smith, J.D. 1950, served with the Tuskegee Airmen. He was the first African-American justice to serve on the Michigan Supreme Court. He was the first black vice president and general counsel at General Motors.

And now Smith is the subject of a Black History Month display at the Columbus School of Law that is open to the public. His life and times are chronicled in two display cases in the law school atrium just outside the Judge Kathryn J. DuFour Law Library.

The exhibit details Smith’s life and career until his death in 1994 at age 72. It includes many photos (including one of him with John F. Kennedy) and another with Martin Luther King Jr.), newspaper and magazine clippings, his autobiography (Looking Beyond Race: The Life of Otis Milton Smith), and artifacts such as the Distinguished Achievement Award given to him by the Tuskegee Airmen National Center of Excellence Museum.

Smith was born in 1922. He grew up poor in segregated Memphis, Tenn. During World War II, he was assigned to the 447th Bombardment Group, part of the illustrious all-black airmen's unit based in Tuskegee, Ala. He came to Catholic University on the G.I. Bill in 1947.

While at the University, he co-authored the lead article in the inaugural issue of the law school’s Law Review, and was a member of the 1949 championship moot court team. He graduated in the top third of his class in 1950. In 1961, he was awarded the University’s Alumni Achievement Award in government. In 1977, he received an honorary law degree from CUA. He served on the Board of Trustees from 1979 to 1984.

In his autobiography, he reflected on his years at the law school. “Even while I was a student, I appreciated the fact that [the] Catholic University law school was a special place. Now with years of hindsight, I can say that I really had three of the greatest years of my life there.”

The exhibit is curated by Frances Brillantine, M.S.L.S. 1992, head of access services at the law school library. She said Smith can be remembered as much for his humility and gentle nature as he can for his accomplishments.

“I love talking about the displays I create, and this one it is particularly special,” said Brillantine. “Justice Smith had a fascinating life and career and I felt like I got to know him after reading his autobiography and listening to his oral history. I could have filled more cases if I had them,” she said.

Brillantine said the CUA community is responding to the display with interest and pride. She plans to keep it in the atrium beyond Black History Month, through March.

The exhibit is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. For more information about the exhibit, email




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