Meet 'Black Girl Magic,' The 19 African-American Women Elected As Judges In Texas

Originally published on January 19, 2019 11:20 am

Though Houston and Harris County make up one of the most ethnically and racially diverse metro areas in the country, that hasn't always been reflected in its judges. But the region recently took a big step towards representation when it elected an additional 17 African-American women to the bench, bringing the total number of African-American women judges in the county to a record 19.

Erica Hughes is the presiding judge for Harris County Criminal Court-at-Law Number 3. Hughes is a former Army lawyer who still serves in the Texas Army National Guard. She's one of the Houston 19, the group that has also come to call themselves, "Harris County Black Girl Magic."

"A few of us are on the same floor, so of course we would see each other every day," Hughes says. "So, it's great to have them available and accessible and so close." Shannon Baldwin, the presiding judge of Harris County Criminal Court-at-Law Number 4, shares Hughes' courtroom.

Last year, the Harris County Democratic Party held a meet-and-greet that included every candidate for every office on its slate. The candidates packed into a small room and introduced themselves one-by-one by their name and office they were running for. At that point, Baldwin says no one suggested running as a group.

"Once we moved past the primary election, we realized that there was this great phenomenon, if you will, a large number of African-American women running for judge," Baldwin says. That's when it occurred to them to get together, "We thought it would be a motivating factor to our voting base."

The phrase "Black Girls Are Magic" had been circulating on social media for at least five years. "The idea of 'Black Girl Magic' in and of itself is just a celebration of the accomplishments of African-American women in various sectors within society, and typically those where we're underrepresented, such as the judiciary here in Harris County," says Judge Tonya Jones.

A promotional photo captured the message, showing all 19 candidates – dressed in black, suggesting judges' robes – in a courtroom at Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law.

"I've even had parents that tell me that their daughters took the picture that we had and they framed it, and it's actually on their wall in their bedroom," says Judge Cassandra Holleman, explaining that throughout the campaign, voters constantly told her how inspirational they found the image.

There were other factors that played into the victory of the 19. Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke lost the state to Republican Ted Cruz, but he carried Harris County by 17 points.

"Obviously, we benefited from straight-ticket voting," Judge Shannon Baldwin says. "Even more so, we benefited from Beto O'Rourke and what he was able to accomplish in Harris County. But let it not go unnoticed that the 19 worked exceptionally hard."

The fact is, a big reason Houston and its suburbs have been trending blue is because they're so diverse, a phenomenon across the country. This cycle, Harris County also saw record numbers of Hispanic-American, Asian-American and LGBT candidates. And the more such candidates win, the more it encourages younger people of diverse backgrounds to believe they can do the same.

The 19 African-American women in judgeships in Harris County include Judge Shannon Baldwin, Judge Lucia Bates, Judge Ronnisha Bowman, Judge Sharon M. Burney, Judge Dedra Davis, Judge Linda Marie Dunson, Judge Toria J. Finch, Judge Ramona Franklin, Judge Lori Chambers Gray, Judge Angela Graves-Harrington, Judge Cassandra Y. Holleman, Judge Erica Hughes, Judge Maria T. Jackson, Judge Tonya Jones, Judge Latosha Lewis Payne, Judge Michelle Moore, Judge Sandra Peake, Judge Germaine Tanner and Judge LaShawn A. Williams.

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Harris County, Texas, which is where you'll find Houston, is one of the most diverse metro areas in the country. That's not always reflected in its judges, but that's changing. The county recently elected a record number of African-American women to the bench - 19 total. Houston Public Media's Andrew Schneider has a story of that group of women who have dubbed themselves Black Girl Magic.

ANDREW SCHNEIDER, BYLINE: Harris County's criminal courts are still damaged from the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Harvey, so criminal court judges are doubling up in the Harris County Family Law Center, a seven-story office building in downtown Houston.

ERICA HUGHES: I'm Judge Erica Hughes for Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 3.

SCHNEIDER: Hughes is a former Army lawyer who still serves in the Texas Army National Guard. She's one of the Houston 19, also known as Black Girl Magic.

HUGHES: A few of us are on the same floor, so, of course, we would see each other every day. So it's great to have them available and accessible and so close.

SCHNEIDER: Some are closer than others.

SHANNON BALDWIN: Hello, my name is Shannon Baldwin. I am the presiding judge of Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 4.

SCHNEIDER: Baldwin shares Hughes' third-floor courtroom, but the Family Law Center is nothing like as crowded as when the 19 met in July of 2017. The Harris County Democratic Party held a get-to-know-you meeting that included every candidate for every office on its slate.

BALDWIN: If you could imagine a room that was far too small, we were all sort of packed in. And it was just like, state your name and what you're going to be running for. And it just went around the room like that.

SCHNEIDER: Baldwin says the potential judges had never discussed plans to run as a group. Nearly half had to win primaries first.

BALDWIN: Once we moved past the primary election, we realized that there was this great phenomenon, if you will - a large number of African-American women running for judge. It just simply occurred to us that that was something that needed to be highlighted, and we thought it would be a motivating factor to our voting base.

SCHNEIDER: The phrase Black Girls are Magic had been circulating on social media for at least five years. Judge Tonya Jones explains why the candidates latched onto it.

TONYA JONES: Just the idea of Black Girl Magic in and of itself is just a celebration of the accomplishments of African-American women in various sectors within society, and typically those where we are underrepresented, such as the judiciary here in Harris County.

SCHNEIDER: A promotional photo captured the message. It showed all 19 candidates dressed in black, suggesting judges' robes, in a courtroom at Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Judge Cassandra Holleman says throughout the campaign, voters constantly told her how inspirational they found the image.

CASSANDRA HOLLEMAN: I've even had parents that tell me that their daughters took the picture that we had, and they framed it. And it's actually on their wall in their bedroom.

SCHNEIDER: There were other factors in the victory of the 19 than just diversity. Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke lost the state to Republican Ted Cruz, but he carried Harris County by 17 points. Again, Judge Shannon Baldwin.

BALDWIN: Obviously, we benefited from straight-ticket voting. Even more so, we benefited from Beto O'Rourke and what he was able to accomplish in Harris County. But let it not go unnoticed that the 19 worked exceptionally hard.

SCHNEIDER: The fact is a big reason Houston and its suburbs have been trending blue is because they're so diverse. This cycle, Harris County also saw record numbers of Hispanic-American, Asian-American and LGBT candidates. And the more such candidates win, the more it encourages younger people of diverse backgrounds to believe they can do the same.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Schneider in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.