In conversation with Frederick Phillips

McGill’s first black law grad and Quebec’s first black lawyer

In 1956, Frederick Phillips became the first black person to graduate from McGill’s Faculty of Law and, once he passed the bar, the first black lawyer in Quebec. On the occasion of a recent conference of the Black Law Students’ Association of Canada, McGill law student and BLSAC president Anthony Morgan sat down with the 85-year-old Phillips, who lives with his wife in Montreal.

Anthony Morgan: What were your first impressions of McGill’s Faculty of Law?

Frederick Phillips: I was lost like a lot of students – I didn’t know anybody. In first year law, our class was composed of – if I remember it correctly – 96 students. But the room we were in only had 54 seats, so if you came late, you had to stand up. At the end of the first three months, that law class reduced from 90-something to 50-something students. The others just couldn’t make it. Also, in our class there was just one woman. At that time there was only one woman judge in the whole court system.

AM: What was it like being in that environment?

FP: I never used to think of

myself as being black, you know? I was more concerned about getting my degree and getting to practice. My father was a porter for the CNR. I had been in the Air Force for three years. I was like a privileged class, not only [compared to] other black guys, but also the white guys.

AM: What brought you to law school?

FP: They had three options for veterans to get into college if you didn’t yet have your high school diploma. There was an option to do Grade 8 through 11 in one year. I had left school in grade 10 in 1939 because my father couldn’t afford to buy me a history book. So I took Grades 8, 9, 10 and 11 in one year. Luckily I passed, so I was able to go to McGill to do my BA. There were two options in Montreal, Sir George Williams where you could get your BA, or McGill. I chose McGill because I knew it was famous, and to tell you the truth, I hadn’t heard of George Williams.

AM: So why did you decide on law?

FP: It just sounded a lot better than being a CNR porter!

AM: When you left law school, did you find there were any barriers for you as a black man practising law?

FP: In fact, judges were very helpful to me. But by that time I was already practising. I was fortunate that when I was in law school, I met a Jewish guy named Bloomfield. We became friends. I had him over to my house and he certainly never had any contact with black people before. He used to notice that I would say hello to every black person I met. It was because Marcus Garvey [founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League] started that in the States – he said you should always recognize another black person. Bloomfield would call it the Marcus Garvey rule (laughs).

Anyway, Bloomfield passed his bar before me, and opened up his office. He had a good memory and passed his bar, but he wasn’t a real studious lawyer. So when I finally passed (my bar exam) I went in to work with Bloomfield. We had our first office right in downtown Montreal. But there was another lawyer, who was rich, his parents owned a big house on Victoria [Avenue]. He was heights above us in his knowledge of the law. But he was a homosexual and in court it wouldn’t work out [because many people at the time wouldn’t accept it].

The three of us were misfits, but we were misfits who fit together, and we opened up a law firm afterwards.

AM: So what do you feel that you gained from your legal education at McGill Law?

FP: I gained a better living than I would have otherwise! I was a lawyer – Montreal’s only black lawyer. But of course you couldn’t take that to the bank. As one of my best friends said to me, being the first black lawyer in Montreal, that plus two dollars would get you a cup of coffee at the Brown Derby restaurant.