SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — When lawyer and longtime public servant William A. McClain ’34 returns to Wittenberg this weekend for “The Big Shebang,” the university’s Homecoming/Reunion Weekend celebration, he will be honored by his alma mater for always striving to succeed despite encountering race-based obstacles throughout his life. Through his perseverance, doors that were once shut were slowly pushed ajar and now usually stand wide open. A ceremony in his honor is set for 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 23, when the Black Culture House, located on 825 Woodlawn Ave., will be rededicated and renamed the William A. McClain Black Culture House.
The house was created in the late 1960s for students who didn’t look like the majority on campus to provide a place for study and spending time with friends in a comfortable environment. McClain was the only black student on Wittenberg’s campus in the 1930s at a time when no such house existed. However, he experienced something while a senior political science major at Wittenberg that defined his successful journey in life. He qualified and won the National Intercollegiate Oratorical Contest.
“As a young, 21-year-old black student, I realized that if I could win this contest on a national scale being the only black student in a white-dominated setting, I could do anything I wanted to do,” McClain said in an interview for a feature in a previous edition of the Wittenberg Magazine. “The struggle for a black man is to attain his selfhood, and that accomplishment at Wittenberg made me realize that my blackness was a badge of honor, not a badge of shame.”
His legal career spans more than 65 years, and he remains one of the most respected attorneys in the nation. The oldest living black lawyer in Hamilton County and the oldest living black alumnus of the University of Michigan Law School, McClain has received numerous honors. In 1997, he received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, which recognizes the achievements of outstanding ethnic Americans and their contributions to America. Four presidents, several congressman and Nobel Prize winners join McClain in receiving this prestigious award sanctioned by the United States Congress. In April 2002, the University of Michigan conferred on him an honorary doctor of laws degree. Wittenberg also awarded McClain an honorary doctor of humane letters in 1972, and he received the university’s Alumni Citation for his exceptional professional accomplishments in 1966. In 1996, he returned to Wittenberg to present the keynote address at the university’s Opening Convocation.
Now retired, McClain, in his early 90s, can still be found working in the downtown law firm of Manley Burke. That commitment to his craft and his community caught the attention of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, which honored McClain with its Great Living Cincinnatian Award last year. In the spring of this year, McClain was inducted into the Hall of Excellence of The Ohio Foundation of Independent Colleges (OFIC).
In addition to recognizing McClain, a revered member of Wittenberg’s faculty will also be honored Saturday. A plaque dedicated in recognition of Mabel Lee Jackson, associate professor emeritus of English, who will be part of the ceremony at the William A. McClain Black Culture House. In Jackson’s 27 years at Wittenberg she specialized in modern American literature, black literature and literary criticism, and her research areas included modern poetry and the modern novel.
A leader of conferences on black writers, she also was at the forefront of encouraging reading among minorities. In 1990, Jackson’s play, The Waiting, was selected a winner by the Seattle Theatre Group as part of the Multicultural Playwrights’ Festival, which promotes U.S. playwrights of Hispanic, African-American, Asian and Native American backgrounds. The Waiting chronicled a black family’s decision to send a son to a desegregated school in the 1950s.
Over the summer, The William A. McClain Black Culture House was completely refurbished and is now better equipped to hold meetings and accommodate a wider variety of programming and studying. Bible studies and movie reviews are planned for the newly designed space. Bi-weekly meetings of Concerned Black Students (CBS) will continue at the house, and the campus is encouraged to consider the house for business and social gatherings.
The William A. McClain Black Culture House will remain open on Saturday until 5 p.m. with light refreshments available and tours hosted by CBS.
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