Hattie Elam Briscoe was the first African American woman to graduate from St. Mary’s University Law School in San Antonio, Texas, and the only black female attorney in Bexar County for almost three decades. Briscoe was born to William Perry and Cloral (Burton) Elam on November 12, 1916, in Shreveport, Louisiana. Her father was a blacksmith, and her mother was a seamstress. Her mother, who briefly attended Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, inspired Briscoe at a young age to attend college. When Hattie was nine years old, her mother died of a stroke, and her family moved to Marshall, Texas, where her father remarried. She and her four siblings attended Marshall’s all-black Central High School, later renamed Pemberton High School (see SEGREGATION and EDUCATION FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS). She graduated at the age of sixteen in 1933 and earned a one-year scholarship to Wiley College, where she majored in education. To pay for the remaining tuition and her room and board, she worked as a laundress and domestic servant in between classes and during summer breaks. After she graduated in 1937, she taught fourth grade in Wichita Falls from 1937 to 1941.
Hattie Elam met her husband William M. Briscoe of San Antonio while both were undergraduate students at Wiley University. They married on October 12, 1940, but they kept their marriage secret until the school year ended in May 1941 because the school administration did not allow married women to be teachers. She then joined her husband, who was a barber, in his beauty shop, Briscoe’s Beauty Salon, on Pine Street in San Antonio. Enjoying the independence of the job, she learned to be a beautician and received her beauty operator license from the state. In 1945 she received her beauty instructor license from the Hicks Beauty School in San Antonio, then taught cosmetology there and at Phillis Wheatley High School, the only public high school for African Americans in San Antonio, from 1945 to 1951. With a goal of possibly being the first black state supervisor in cosmetology, she spent her summers earning a master’s degree in education administration with a minor in industrial education from Prairie View A&M College (now Prairie View A&M University); she graduated in 1951.
In March 1951 Wheatley High School principal George P. Inge, Jr., terminated Briscoe’s employment without the typical one-year probation, despite her being considered one of the most qualified teachers in her field. The reason for her termination is unclear. Upon hearing of her removal, concerned parents and local residents wrote letters and signed a petition sent to the San Antonio Independent School District Board requesting her reinstatement. She also had the backing of ministers and the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Because other questionable terminations had happened in the past, a Committee on Teacher Security was formed by Rev. John DeLeon Walker and Dr. Ruth Ann Bellinger following the school board’s decision not to act, but Briscoe was not reinstated. Bellinger, whose husband and brother were attorneys, saw Briscoe’s legal ability and encouraged her to go to the law school. In 1954 Briscoe was a member of the local NAACP executive board when the local chapter petitioned the school board to integrate and formally requested the city government allow African Americans full use of public parks and recreational areas including swimming pools. The latter led Thurgood Marshall to file suit against the city in 1955.
Briscoe’s termination of employment at Wheatley High School led her to shift careers and move into the legal profession. Not able to go back to her teaching job, Briscoe took the civil service exam and worked as a clerk at Kelly Air Force Base, then entered St. Mary’s University School of Law. While a student there, she was told by a professor, who was a judge, that women and African Americans should not go to law school, and, as she recalled, the dean thought she would not graduate. She was invited to join a study group by fellow student Carol Haberman, who later became the first female district judge in Bexar County. In January 1956 she was the first black graduate of St. Mary’s University School of Law. Haberman was the only other woman in Briscoe’s graduating class. Although Briscoe graduated at the top of the class, the school did not recognize her achievement or any honor students during the graduation ceremony program. Her husband bought her a black and white Cadillac as a graduation present, and it became her trademark.
After graduation, Briscoe applied for a position in the Bexar County district attorney’s office but was told they did not hire blacks or women. Since most large law firms shared such exclusionary and discriminatory hiring practices, she opened her own private law practice at 1416 East Commerce in San Antonio. For twenty-seven years she was the only black woman attorney in San Antonio. Initially, she handled criminal cases, including a few that involved law enforcement’s mistreatment of African Americans, a major concern of the local NAACP branch in the late 1950s. In one murder case, in 1959, she received national attention in Jet Magazine when she was hired as a special prosecutor by the widow of an unarmed black veteran who was killed by a police officer.
Her job as an attorney came with additional hurdles due to her race and gender. Haberman noted that some male lawyers would not return phone calls of women attorneys. In another case, a judge made Briscoe wait until the end of the day’s court docket to hear her client’s case, despite their arriving to court early, simply because she was the attorney. During a case in Richmond, Texas, she and her client used the white women’s bathroom because the courthouse did not have one for black women. After a white woman complained to the sheriff, Briscoe had to explain the situation to the judge, who put a white female law officer at the door of the women’s restroom and allowed Briscoe and her client to use his private lavatory.
Over time Briscoe handled family and probate law which she learned to prefer. Called “scrappy” and “tenacious” by her colleagues, she did not seek out high-profile clients or cases. Instead she handled everyday legal matters for people and found plenty of work through word-of-mouth referrals. In 1963 she was admitted to practice before the Veterans Administration. In 1964 she was invited to join the National Association of Defense Lawyers in Criminal Cases and licensed to practice in the United States District Court, Western District of Texas.
In February 1993 St. Mary’s University School of Law recognized Briscoe as the school’s first African American graduate. That year her friends and colleagues established a scholarship in her name to honor her achievement. She retired at the age of eighty-one in December 1997. The following year her portrait was hung in the Alumni Room of the Sarita Kenedy East Law Library on the St. Mary’s University campus. She was member of Texas Bar Association (see STATE BAR OF TEXAS), Texas Criminal Bar Association, American Bar Association, National Association of Defense Lawyers Criminal Cases, National Association of Black Women Attorneys, San Antonio Women’s Association, San Antonio Black Lawyers Association, and San Antonio Bar Association.
Her husband William died in 1987. The couple did not have children. Her favorite song was “Inseparable” by Natalie Cole, because it described how she felt about her husband. She was a member of Mount Zion First Baptist Church (see AFRICAN AMERICAN CHURCHES) in San Antonio. In her spare time, she was an avid bridge player. In 1998 she donated her papers to the John Peace Library Special Collections at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She died on October 17, 2002, in San Antonio and was buried in the Eastview Cemetery in the same city.