In-Depth

Meet The Judges Of Harris County “Black Girl Magic”

Earlier this month, 19 African-American women took the oath of office as Harris County judges, setting a new record for diversity on the bench.

A record 19 African-American women ran for and won judgeships in Harris County in 2018.

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 greater diversity. It elected 17 African-American women to the bench, bringing the total number of African-American women judges in the county to a record 19.

Harris County’s criminal courts are still damaged from the floodwaters of 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 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, also known as “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 said. “So, it’s great to have them available and accessible and so close.”

Some are closer than others. Shannon Baldwin, the presiding judge of Harris County Criminal Court-at-Law Number 4, shares Hughes’ third-floor courtroom. But the Family Law Center is not nearly as crowded as it was 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.

“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,” Baldwin said. She adds that the potential judges had never discussed plans to run as a group. Nearly half had to win primaries first.

“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 said. “And 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.”

The phrase “Black Girls Are Magic” had been circulating on social media for at least five years. “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’re underrepresented, such as the judiciary here in Harris County,” Judge Tonya Jones said, explaining why the candidates latched onto the phrase.

“The initial name from the party that they wanted to call us was ‘She’s Got Magic.’ She who?” said Judge Toria J. Finch. “You know, you’ve seen the movie Hidden Figures, right? We didn’t want to be hidden figures. We wanted people to know who we are.”

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 Hollemon said that throughout the campaign, voters constantly told her how inspirational they found the image.

“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,” Hollemon said.

There were other factors besides just diversity 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 said. “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. 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.

Share

Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

More Information