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Annie Coker: A pioneer California lawyer

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Annie Virginia Stephens Coker
Coker

Google the name “Annie Virginia Stephens Coker” and no results pop up on the computer screen. But Coker was the first black woman lawyer in California, and Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte thinks it’s time she received her due.

Twenty years ago, Harbin-Forte attended an event focused on women lawyers, sponsored by the historical society for the northern district of California. Following a presentation about Clara Shortridge Foltz, California’s first woman lawyer, Harbin-Forte wondered about the first black woman to pass the bar. “No women of color were mentioned, but I knew there had to be some first women of color, too,” she recalled.

So she undertook a research project that led her to Coker’s unofficial biographer who, in turn, put the judge in touch with Coker’s by-then elderly co-workers. Coker was variously described by those who knew her as a “spoiled brat who was loved by all,” “bright,” “reserved,” “every inch a lady” and someone with class. She liked to travel, loved music, hated to cook (even though her father was a chef) and loved to shop. She once told a friend, Harbin-Forte said, “If God ever told me, ‘Virginia, you have one more day to live,’ I’d like to do it shopping.”

Born in Oakland on April 7, 1903, Annie Virginia Stephens was an only child. She attended public schools in Oakland until the family moved to Pacific Grove, where she graduated from high school. She received a bachelor of sciences from the University of California at Berkeley, and encouraged by her father, entered Boalt Hall, where she was one of 47 students and one of just two women students. She received an LL.B. in 1929 and won admission to the California bar the same year, when, according to one researcher, she “fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a lawyer.”

At some point she married, but Harbin-Forte said she has no information about Coker’s husband or whether the couple had children. And none of her co-workers “spoke of her struggles,” Harbin-Forte said. Coker moved to Alexandria, Va., where she maintained a private practice before returning to California in 1939, when she joined the State Office of Legislative Counsel in Sacramento.

“I would imagine it would have been very difficult for a black woman to get hired by any established law firms,” said Harbin-Forte. “Caucasian women ‘firsts’ were not being hired so I’m certain government service was likely the only door open to her.”

When Coker started as a junior deputy legislative counsel, California had about 12 state codes. She eventually worked her way up to head of the Indexing Section, where she was responsible for compiling all of the state codes, keeping them current, indexing all bills pending before the legislature and providing legal opinions.

A legal indexer who worked for Coker from 1959 until her retirement in 1966 described her as “a good supervisor, a good friend, someone you could take personal problems to.” Others said Coker was conscientious and worked tirelessly, often until late at night. She admitted to a co-worker that she was not confident she could pass the bar exam because she’d been told she was “too brief” in her writing style. Her brevity served as a virtue, the co-worker said, for she had “the uncanny faculty for stating things in one sentence, stripping away unnecessary verbiage and getting straight to the point.”

After 27 years with the legislative counsel, Coker retired in 1966, ending a distinguished career as the attorney with the most longevity at the agency. She resided in a convalescent hospital in Sacramento before her death in 1986, two months shy of her 83rd birthday.

Harbin-Forte, who also grew up in Oakland, graduated from Cal and received her law degree from Boalt, has been widely honored by numerous minority bar associations and was herself a “first black woman lawyer” in California — the first to serve as dean of the California Judicial College. A judge since 1992, she said there has been no formal acknowledgement of Coker’s importance to minority women lawyers and, in fact, she was excluded from a recent comprehensive database of important women lawyers in the state.

“I’m absolutely inspired by her,” said Harbin-Forte. “For her to have come up at the time she did, and to be admitted at a time when the level of discrimination and the lack of opportunities for African-Americans, particularly in the legal profession, was high is amazing to me.

“She’s been such an inspiration. My heart sang when I was able to learn about her.”

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