Sanford lost one of its most successful and respected sons last week with the passing of William McClain.

Born to an unwed 14-year-old girl in Sanford in 1913, McClain moved to Ohio in 1930 and would go on to become the country’s first black member of a large-city law firm in Cincinnati, the first black member of the Cincinnati Bar Association in 1951 (years after it initially rejected his membership) and the first black Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge.

McClain died last Tuesday, weeks after his 101st birthday, the Cincinnati Inquirer reported.

“Life has been good to me. I had some good friends who led me along the way,” McClain told NBC News affiliate WLWT last year on his 100th birthday. “The great miracle was, I was born out of wedlock to a teenaged mother and I had a father who could not read or write. I overcame those obstacles to achieve my manhood.”

William McClain

  • McClain never met his father, but when he died, McClain went to central North Carolina to pay for his burial.
  • In 1934, while unable to stay in the same hotel as the white participants, McClain won a national collegiate oratory competition. The lone black participant, McClain’s speech espoused racial harmony and social justice.
  • McClain earned his law degree from the University of Michigan and later, Burke said, was a law partner with Theodore Berry, Cincinnati’s first black mayor. That proved fortunate for McClain and his future. While working with Berry, McClain met Roberta White, the best friend of Berry’s secretary. They were married 66 years, until her death three years ago.
  •  McClain was elevated to the 33rd degree of masonry and became Grand Master of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Ohio. He spear-headed great expansion within the fraternal order and founded the Progressive Black Masonry Movement within the Masons and the Order of Eastern Star.
  • On May 4, 1997, he was awarded the highly coveted Ellis Island Medal of Honor. The award was created in 1986 to honor the many ancestral groups who through struggle, sacrifice, and success helped build our great nation.
  • The Mallory Center for Community Development bestowed upon him its History Maker Award on Feb. 24, 2001. In 2003, the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce recognized him as “A Great Living Cincinnatian.”
  • The crowning moment of his life came on Oct. 23, 2004, when Wittenberg University dedicated “The William A. McClain Culture House” in honor of his life and career as the only Black graduate in the Class of 1934.

[Source: Cincinnati Inquirer, WKRC in Cincinnati, WCPO in Cincinnati, and Huffington Post]