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Pratt, Charles A.

Kalamazoo's First Black Judge


One of several existing legal associations in Kalamazoo, is the Charles A. Pratt Bar Association, which takes its moniker from a homegrown success story. Pratt, who passed away on 21 March 1989, holds the distinction of being Kalamazoo County’s first black judge.

Pratt was born in Kalamazoo on 2 April 1909 to Otis and Lydia Pratt, and grew up on Peeler Street. Like most black children growing up in Kalamazoo during the 1910’s and 1920’s, outside of church gatherings, Pratt spent time socializing at the Douglass Community Association, which had been established in 1918. After graduating from Kalamazoo Central High School in 1928, Pratt chose to attend Howard University, making his way to the Washington D.C. school via a Model T he’d purchased for $50. Initially drawn to the gridiron, Pratt soon abandoned Howard’s football team to focus on work and academics, eventually earning his law degree in 1935.

Upon his return to Kalamazoo in the middle of the Great Depression, Pratt opened his law practice on North Burdick Street, above the A. L Lakey paint store after failing to join a larger firm. He later told the Kalamazoo Gazette that “I made $735 the first year here.” Pratt joined the newly established Kalamazoo County Bar Association, forming connections and friendships with fellow attorneys. He would later serve as the association’s president in the early 1970’s.

Charles Pratt, Kalamazoo Central High School Yearbook, 1928

The outbreak of the World War II saw Pratt called to active duty, serving as an officer in a racially segregated unit that fought in North Africa and Italy. He was also able to put his legal knowledge to good use by serving in the Judge Advocate Generals Department of the U.S. Army.

“Charles Pratt was a people’s judge,” said Patrick H. McCauley, former Kalamazoo district and circuit judge.

“He loved people and was very considerate. As a person, he had a good sense of humor and was always pleasant. I don’t think I ever saw Judge Pratt lose his cool.” (KG, 3-22-1989)

After decades of practicing law, Pratt was elected judge in the newly created 8th District Court in 1968. He retired from the bench in 1980 due to state laws restricting judges by age. In addition to his work on the bench, Pratt gave back in the form of working with community organizations.

“Pratt was a community-minded individual who, besides serving his legal clients, lent his intelligence to the boards of organizations such as the Douglass Community Association, the Kalamazoo YMCA and as president of the Kalamazoo County Bar Association.”

“A compassionate man, he demonstrated his feelings for others in many ways. He treated everyone, including the most impoverished client or defendant, with unfailing courtesy. He spent many hours encouraging people, no matter their race, to dream big dreams and go after them.” (KG 3-23-89)

In October 2023, the Kalamazoo County board of Commissioners honored him by naming the new downtown courthouse the Judge Charles A. Pratt Justice Center. Judge Pratt died in 1989 and was buried at Ft. Custer National Cemetery.

 

Written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, January 2023. Last updated 9 October 2023

Sources

Books

Social changes in western Michigan, 1930 to 1990
Henry Vance Davis
H 921 A3754.3, p. 150


Articles

“Pratt urges government to protect the non-protester”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 December 1968, page 12, column 1

“Ex-judge Pratt dead at 79”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 22 March 1989, page A1, column 3

“Judge Charles Pratt: justice for all of us”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 March 1989, page A10, column 1

“Courthouse to be renamed”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 October 2023, page A2, column 4


Local History Room Files

Name File: Pratt, Charles A.

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