An Extraordinary Life Span: A Summary and Analysis of An Oral History of the Honorable William A. McClain, United States Army (1943-1946)

Author:Dan Dalrymple
Position:Judge Advocate, U.S. Army
I believe in a greater humanity that transcends race,
color, and creed. Therefore, I believe in the Black
Man’s Destiny—that somewhere, sometime in this land
of ours, though black-skinned and kinky-haired, he shall
climb the mountains of life, hand in hand with his white
brother, and emerge above the clouds of blackness into
the sunlight of freedom and social justice. 2
I. Introduction
* Judge Advocate, U.S. Army. Presently assigned as Senior Defense Counsel, Fort
Campbell, Kentucky. LL.M., 2013, The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and
School, Charlottesville, Virginia; J.D., 2004, Western New England University; B.A.,
2000, Vanderbilt University. Previous assignments include Rule of Law Attorney,
Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2010–2011; Special Counsel, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil
Division, Washington, D.C., 2009–2011; Litigation Attorney, U.S. Army Litigation
Division, Arlington, Virginia, 2008–2009; Brigade Judge Advocate, 504th Battlefield
Surveillance Brigade, Fort Hood, Texas, 2006–2008; Legal Assistance Attorney, III
Corps, Fort Hood, Texas, 2005–2006. Member of the bars of Ohio, the District of
Columbia, and the Supreme Court of the United States. This article was submitted in
partial completion of the Master of Laws requirements of the 61st Judge Advocate
Officer Graduate Course. The author wishes to thank Mr. John C. Norwine, Executive
Director of the Cinncinnati Bar Association and Mr. Tim M. Burke, of Manley Burke, for
their cooperation, and to especially thank Robert A. Budinsky III, for his assistance with
research at the Cinncinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal.
1 Major Jim Gibson & Major Stacy Flippin, An Oral History of William A. McClain,
(2003) [hereinafter Oral History] (unpublished manuscript, on file with The Judge
Advocate General’s School Library, United States Army, Charlottesville, Virginia). The
manuscript was prepared as part of the Oral History Program of the Professional
Communications Department at The Judge Advocate General’s School, Charlottesville,
Virginia. The oral history of the Hon. William A. McClain is one of over seventy
personal histories on file with The Judge Advocate General’s School Library. They are
available for viewing through coordination with the School Librarian, Daniel Lavering,
and offer a fascinating perspective on key leaders whose indelible influence continues to
this day. Mr. McClain died on Tuesday, February 4, 2014. He was 101 years old.
2 William A. McClain, Our Scroll of Destiny (Apr. 28, 1934), in Oral History, supra note
1, app. C, at 8.
William A. McClain was a World War II era African American
Judge Advocate. While his longevity in years is noteworthy by itself,
more so is the scope of his achievements and the constellation of
personal connections he forged. Born into poverty in the Jim Crow
South, he rose to become an accomplished orator, lawyer, judge
advocate, city solicitor, state court judge, and leader in the civil rights
movement. Along the way, he broke down racial barriers, often with the
help of white teachers and colleagues, as well as the personal
involvement of a governor, senator, and future Supreme Court Justice.
Many of his professional accomplishments occurred in the City of
Cincinnati, a conservative bastion, and hotbed for racial unrest.3
This article is a summary and analysis of interviews conducted with
the Honorable William A. McClain in 1999 and 2003, interviews later
transcribed and bound in An Oral History of William A. McClain, which
is maintained at the Library of The Judge Advocate General’s Legal
Center and School, United States Army, Charlottesville, Virginia.4 The
article introduces Mr. McClain by discussing the personal challenges he
overcame, along with the professional experience and accomplishments
he amassed, while identifying the character attributes that contributed to
his success. In particular, this article highlights his ability to forge
relationships, transcend boundaries, and serve as an example of
II. Early Life, Education, and Background
A. A Humble Upbringing
William A. McClain was born in Sanford, North Carolina, on
January 11, 1913. He was born out of wedlock to a teenage mother; his
father could not read or write.5 During his early childhood, he and his
3 See generally John Kiesewetter, Civil Unrest Woven into City’s History, CINCINNATI
ENQUIRER, July 15, 2001, available at
tem_civil_unrest_woven.html. See also Kevin Osborne, Reflections on Riots & Race—A
Decade Later, Differing Views Persist on Causes, Aftermath, CINCINNATI CITY BEAT,
Apr. 6, 2011, available at
4 The Library Catalogue is accessible at
5 Hundreds Celebrate Judge's 100th Birthday: Judge William McClain Turned 100
Years Old Friday (NBC WLWT broadcast Jan. 13, 2013), available at
mother moved to Springfield, Ohio, to live with his maternal
grandmother, Eva Duvall. For a time, McClain’s grandmother raised
him and his mother, just fourteen years his senior, “almost as siblings.”6
In Springfield, the family lived in a five-room house without utilities
or even a phone. Though eventually they did get electric light, through
high school McClain would study by lamplight. All in his household had
no more than a fifth grade education and were not able to provide much
by way of cultural or civic discourse during his formative years.
McClain credits a white school teacher at Elmwood Elementary School,
Augusta Wiegle, as imparting to him what he describes as his first
defining moment.7 With her support, McClain began to buckle down at
school and took an interest in learning and academic accomplishment
that would serve him for a lifetime. Though “separate but equal” was
the law of the land then and beyond, as set out in Plessy v. Ferguson,8
McClain never attended a segregated school and never had an African
American teacher through high school. He attended Springfield High
School and, though it was an integrated school, he was one of only five
African Americans in a class of approximately three hundred.9
McClain finished near the top of his class, graduating with honors in
1930. That same year, he received a scholarship to Wittenberg College
in Springfield, now Wittenberg University. Though not on a full
scholarship, McClain was able to focus on his studies, thanks in no small
6 Barry Horstman, William McClain at 100: A Legacy of Firsts, CINCINNATI ENQUIRER,
Jan. 10, 2013, at C5. When McClain was about twelve, his mother remarried and
“'became a positive force.” Id. See also Oral History, supra note 1, at 2.
7 Oral History, supra note 1, at 2–5.
One day I was in the playground playing and being very
[mischievous] with a lot of black youngsters, and I was trying to be
the baddest guy on earth. And she called me in and told me, she says,
[“]Bill, you know, you're not like the others. . . . [Y]ou have an
opportunity to make it in life . . . I’m expecting you to be a very good
student.[”] And she began to take me to give me a cultural
experience by taking me to movies and operas and to things of
culture and invite me down to her house. And she inspired me.
Id. at 2.
8 163 U.S. 537 (1896) (upholding the constitutionality of a Louisiana law mandating
“equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races”), overruled by
Brown v. Bd. of Ed., 347 U.S. 483, 495 (1954) (concluding “that in the field of public
education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place”).
9 Oral History, supra note 1, at 3–4.

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