Local

Sarah Leverette, pioneer among SC women in the law, still influential at 96

The League of Women Voters archives are now in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library at the University of South Carolina. Longtime member Sarah Leverette was among those honored during a reception there earlier this month.
The League of Women Voters archives are now in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library at the University of South Carolina. Longtime member Sarah Leverette was among those honored during a reception there earlier this month. tglantz@thestate.com

Sarah Leverette could have married and lived the homebound lifestyle of many women who came of age in the 1930s and ’40s.

Instead, she turned down “a couple” of proposals, including one she seriously considered, while studying law at the University of South Carolina. There, she was the only woman in her graduating class of 1943, following just two women who finished ahead of her.

“I said to myself, ‘You have to weigh being married and sitting in a kitchen or using your three years of law school.’ It was a pretty hard decision,” Leverette said. “I did have sense enough to know my future life weighed on this decision.”

She defied many of the expectations – or lack thereof – for women of her time to become a woman admired in the South Carolina legal profession as influential and a trailblazer.

“I tell her, ‘I want to grow up to be just like you,’” said Jean Toal, a 72-year-old former chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court.

I tell her, ‘I want to grow up to be just like you.’”

Jean Toal, former chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court

Leverette, 96, recently was given the Martha Browning Dicus award for public interest law by the S.C. Women Lawyers Association. And a collection of her S.C. League of Women Voters papers was introduced this month to the Hollings Special Collections Library at USC.

Leverette’s resume includes, among other laurels, graduating as one of the first women with a USC law degree, working for a quarter-century as the first female faculty member at USC’s law school, serving as commissioner and chairwoman of the S.C. Industrial Commission (now the Workers Compensation Commission) and leading the influential League of Women Voters.

“She certainly is a beacon of credibility and knowledge,” said S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Costa Pleicones, a USC law student in the 1960s during Leverette’s faculty tenure. “When she speaks, people pay attention.”

Leverette, who lives in Columbia, now works as a real estate agent for Russell and Jeffcoat Real Estate because retirement bored her.

And she’s in impeccable health, to boot.

But by her own measure, “My only claim to fame is I’ve lived a long time,” Leverette said.

Dick Riley, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. Secretary of Education, disagrees that’s Leverette’s only distinctive quality.

“The fact that she’s lived a long time has really enabled her to do so much for many people and causes,” said Riley, who befriended Leverette when he was a law student and she was a law librarian in the early 1960s.

She’s trying to help people and not herself. She wants to make the state better.”

former S.C. Gov. Dick Riley

Later, as a state legislator in the 1970s, Riley worked alongside Leverette when she served on the governor-appointed South Carolina Constitutional Revision Committee. “She’s trying to help people and not herself. She wants to make the state better.”

WOMAN WITH A DEGREE

Leverette didn’t walk a smooth path to her place of influence and esteem.

When Leverette was a law school student in the early 1940s, she said, the dean, a man of the “old school” would sometimes meet her in the hallway and ask, “Ms. Leverette, are you still with us?”

“I didn’t have much of a welcome mat,” she said, but she didn’t think much of that as a student.

After graduating, a pair of her law school classmates who had opened their own practice “did what just about anybody else did if they found a woman with a law degree,” Leverette said – they made a secretary out of her.

“I did not go to law school to get a servant’s degree,” she said. “When I finished law school, I knew the door was closed (to women in law). I didn’t know it was locked.”

Leverette quickly left the practice and went on to spend 25 years working as a law librarian and teaching legal research and writing at USC, where she would meet and teach future influential legal and political figures such as I.S. Leevy Johnson, the first African-American to serve as president of the S.C. Bar; Toal, the first woman to serve as chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court; and Toal’s recent successor, Pleicones.

Leverette encouraged others trying to stake out trails of their own behind her, said Johnson, the only black member of his law school class of 1968 and one of the first African-American graduates of the law school since Reconstruction.

“Ms. Leverette reached out to me and gave me a comfort level as a student,” said Johnson, who spent a lot of time studying in the library where Leverette worked. “It’s hard to describe in words from my viewpoint the apprehension I had going into the unknown. ... So it was comforting to have someone there who you always knew was there to support you and was always there in your corner.”

It was comforting to have someone there who you always knew was there to support you and was always there in your corner.”

attorney I.S. Leevy Johnson, the only black member of his law school class of 1968

To the still-small contingent of law school students in the 1960s, Leverette was “the Rock of Gibraltar,” said Toal, another 1968 graduate.

“Sarah was never a gal to have a pity party about anything,” Toal said. “You just worked harder and created that opportunity. ... That positive attitude was a tremendous inspiration to the small group of young women like myself in law school at that time.”

Leverette not only believed in students’ ability to succeed and bring the benefits of diversity to the legal profession, she encouraged their ability to use the law to do what’s right.

“Sarah really translated a belief in the goodness of the law as a vehicle for social change that really made us believe that ... we needed to give back through public service,” Toal said. “She believed we could make a difference, and it really made us get out there and try extra hard.”

JURIES AND ETHICS REFORM

Leverette’s longest commitment, for more than 60 years, has been to the League of Women Voters.

A member since 1950, shortly after the national group established a presence in the Columbia area, Leverette found the League to be an avenue for her passion for advocating for informed democracy, fair government and women’s rights.

As a League member, including as president from 1958 to 1961, Leverette has helped influence decisions on local, state and national public policy issues ranging from library bonds to nuclear waste dumping.

She worked with the League in the 1960s to push for the right of women to serve on juries in South Carolina. She remembers having a legislator say to her, “Ms. Leverette, the courtroom is no place for a woman. Bad things happen. ...

“I said, ‘You may not know it, but sometimes women have bad things over the back fence worse than in the courtroom,” she said.

She likens the 10-year fight to put women on juries to the League’s current long-term efforts to see meaningful ethics reform pass in the State House.

While much has changed in the law and the legal profession since her pioneering days, Leverette cherishes the consistency of the foundational principles of law, among them equality, justice and compassion.

That’s a point she continues to drive home to young lawyers following behind her more than seven decades later.

The concepts of justice, ethics and fair play are really the laws of life.”

Sarah Leverette

“A law degree prepares you for life, whether you ever practice or not,” Leverette said. “If you never ever practice law, you have learned so much. ... You have a sense of fair play and compassion. I usually tell them you should have compassion, but do not let it go beyond your judgment.

“The concepts of justice, ethics and fair play are really the laws of life.”

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.

  Comments