Childhood neighbor inspired Judge Crenshaw to pursue career in law

Local Black History
Black History Month, Judge Waverly Crenshaw_372858

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – A career that he dreamed about as a child is now a reality for Judge Waverly Crenshaw.

Crenshaw was nominated by President Barack Obama in February 2015, and was confirmed 14 months later by unanimous vote of the U.S. Senate as Tennessee’s newest federal district judge.

“You go through a very exhausting process where literally hundreds of people are talked to about you, your integrity, your professionalism, your intelligence and to get all that to happen – one person said it’s like lightning striking you. It’s all got to go right,” Crenshaw said.

That process worked for Crenshaw.

“He was named to the bench because he is a man who wants to see justice done,” Attorney Aubrey Harwell said. “He’s very ethical, he’s totally honest, he’s got great integrity. He never did anything that blemished his career – he’s totally unblemished.”

Crenshaw said his journey to the bench began with a childhood notion of owning a car like the one his neighbor drove.

“We didn’t have a bright shiny, new car every year, but he did,” he recalled.

That neighbor was Judge Robert E. Lilliard – Nashville’s noted Civil Rights attorney.

“So, I asked my father, ‘Well, what does he do?’ He said, ‘Oh, he’s a lawyer,’ and I said, ‘Ok,’ and I think that sort of planted the seed,” Crenshaw said.

Evidence of that ambition would show up years later in his McGavock High School yearbook, where he wrote, “To go to college and law school.”

His plans though, might have been derailed if not for the guidance of counselor Lilly Bowman.

“For whatever reason, when I initially got there, I’d been assigned to woodworking and auto mechanics and skilled labor. She would have none of that and immediately moved me to the more substantive pre-college courses to make sure I was prepared and had what I needed to go to college,” Crenshaw said.

Crenshaw decided to stay in Nashville to attend Vanderbilt University and its school of law.

“We were probably part of the experiment at Vanderbilt. I think in my class there were about 30 African-American students, which was tremendous at Vanderbilt at that time,” he said, adding, “There weren’t a lot of black professors there and there were a lot of professors there who did not know how to communicate with or otherwise have relationships with black students.”

Despite the challenges, Crenshaw earned his degrees and practiced law with former Attorney General Bill Leech, who invited him to join the firm.

“He was very much a progressive Southern populous and opened the doors that I could as the first black attorney at Waller, Lansden, Dortch and Davis and achieve some measure of success there as a partner,” he said.

There are about 800 active federal judges across the country. Of those, 107 are African-American and two of them serve the Volunteer State.

“It was my decision to leave my law firm and become a federal judge because I wanted to give back to our community – one that’s certainly been important to my life and one that’s been very good to me in my life,” Crenshaw said.

Judge John Thomas Fowlkes is the other African-American federal judge in the Volunteer State. He represents the state’s west district.

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