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Recognize & Celebrate businesses & people

Great Living Cincinnatians: Honorees

Celebrating the leadership, vision, tenacity, and love of community shared by the recipients of the Great Living Cincinnatian Award, presented annually by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber since 1967.

Judge William A. McClain

Awarded In 2003
1913 – 2014

When William McClain arrived in Cincinnati in 1937 by train, he couldn’t catch a cab at Union Terminal. Not because there was a lack of taxis, but rather, because of the color of his skin. “When I got off the train at the terminal the cabs wouldn’t pick me up,” he recalled. “Cincinnati was one of the most segregated towns in the north.”

“My early life was a struggle to overcome that,” he added.

Overcoming adversity has been a lifelong mantra for the determined and energetic lawyer and judge. Judge McClain excelled following graduation from the University of Michigan Law School in 1937. When he arrived in Cincinnati, the late Theodore Berry took the young attorney under his wing.

“I wouldn’t be in Cincinnati if it wasn’t for him,” Judge McClain said of Mr. Berry, who later became the first black mayor of Cincinnati. “He was a mentor, a friend and a benefactor.”

In the 20 years they worked in law together, from 1938-1958, Mr. Berry instilled in Judge McClain the responsibility to lead and mentor those following in his footsteps.

“He felt the role for black leaders was the struggle for justice and equality,” the North Carolina native said.

A defining moment in Judge McClain’s career came in a meeting with the late Judge Stanley Struble. “He told me to bring down racial barriers in my profession, the bar,” Judge McClain recalled. “I made up my mind to improve the quality of life for black lawyers in Cincinnati.”

His distinguished career is marked by many “firsts.” He became the first African-American member of the Cincinnati Lawyers Club in 1947 and joined the Cincinnati Bar Association in 1950 as its first black member.

In 1942 he became the first African-American assistant solicitor for Cincinnati. In 1957 he was named deputy city solicitor, and in 1963 he became city solicitor, a post he held until 1972. He was the first African-American to be named city solicitor of a major U.S. city. In joining Keating, Muething & Klekamp in 1972, he became the first African-American to serve in a major law firm in Cincinnati.

He served as Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge (1975-76), the first African-American to hold the post; Hamilton County Municipal Court judge (1977-78); and Hamilton County Municipal Court trial referee (1979-1980). He was of counsel at Manley, Burke & Lipton (1980-2003) and served as law director for Lincoln Heights, Ohio (1980-1987, and 1994-2003) .

Judge McClain educated and mentored many aspiring attorneys, serving as adjunct professor of law at the University of Cincinnati Law School from 1963-1972 and at the Salmon P. Chase Law School from 1965-1972.

He earned numerous prestigious awards, most notably: the Ellis Island Gold Medal of Honor (1997); the Race Relations Award from the Ohio Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission (1997); the National Bar Association Hall of Fame (1986); and a certificate of honor from the Board of Directors of the NAACP for outstanding civic contributions in Cincinnati in the field of race relations (1942).

He was married to Roberta White McClain, a retired supervisor of social services for the Hamilton County Welfare Department.

A public celebration of Judge McClain’s 100th birthday was held on Jan. 13, 2013, at Allen Temple in Bond Hill.

“I had a good philosophy that I was not going to let external forces define me,” Judge McClain said. “Rather, my divine forces inside defined me. That has been my philosophy all my life – that brought me through and gave me survival skills and success skills.”

Judge William McClain died on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014 in Cincinnati. He was 101.

Nominate a Great Living Cincinnatian

Recipients are selected from candidates by the Cincinnati Chamber’s senior council based on the following criteria: – Community service – Business and civic attainment on a local, state and national or international level – Leadership – Awareness of the needs of others – Distinctive accomplishments that have brought favorable attention to their community, institution or organization