February 9th marks the anniversary of the passing of William A. Heathman, the first African-American lawyer in Rhode Island, who died in 1968 at the age of 95.
Heathman, whose father worked as a butler, graduated from English High School. He entered Brown University in the class of 1895. According to historian Rick Harris, Heathman, a pitcher, was likely the first black player on Brown's baseball team, appearing in a team photo in the spring of 1892.
Heathman left Brown, however, because he discovered that he could earn his law degree faster by transferring to Boston University. Upon finishing his studies, he applied to take the Rhode Island Bar exam, the first person of color to do so. Although some felt that Rhode Island was "not ready for a Negro lawyer," he was eventually permitted to take the exam. He was admitted to practice in 1898, and practiced in Providence until his retirement in 1964.
One of Heathman's first cases was brought on his own behalf. A conductor forcibly ejected him from a Providence trolley car, apparently due to his race, and he sued the railroad company. Before his ejection, Heathman had been in conversation with the nephew of Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles DuBois, who corroborated his story. The railroad settled the case to Attorney Heathman's satisfaction.
He was a founding member (1913) of the Executive Committee of the Providence chapter of the NAACP.
Heathman was also an active Freemason, serving as treasurer-general of the Prince Hall Affiliate, the African-American Freemasons in Providence. In the 1940s he worked for closer cooperation between the white and African-American Masons' groups, in conjunction with Melvin M. Johnson, a white Boston University classmate who had served as Dean of the BU Law School.
In addition to his private law practice, Heathman served as assistant clerk of the State Returning Board – predecessor to the State Board of Elections -- for nearly twenty years, and in 1935 was appointed as a Master in Chancery.In 1969, the year after his death, the University of Rhode Island named one of its new dormitories Heathman Hall.