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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, November 27, 1990. Interview L-0064-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Legal career of Mima Riddiford Pollitt

Pollitt describes the legal career of his mother, Mima Riddiford Pollitt. His mother completed her law degree sometime around 1938, after having taken classes at Rutgers, Yale, and George Washington University during the 1930s. After she passed the bar, she worked as a librarian in the Department of Justice and then for the War Relocation Authority, where she served as a spokesperson for interned Japanese-Americans during World War II. Following the war, Mrs. Pollitt worked for the Department of Interior as an administrative law judge until she retired and entered private practice during the 1950s. Much like her son, Mrs. Pollitt spent the next several decades defending people on issues of civil liberties.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, November 27, 1990. Interview L-0064-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

When my father was teaching law at Rutgers and we were maybe in the first grade or something, she started to take courses at Rutgers. Then when we went to Arizona she didn't and then we went to Boston and she enrolled in Yale Law School somehow and took courses at Yale. Then when we went to Washington, she went to G.W. and got her law degree from G.W. When my father got sick she got a job as first a librarian at the Department of Justice. They all knew her. Then she passed the Bar and became a lawyer.
ANN MCCOLL:
What year was that?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Well, I don't know. This was 1937 or '38 when she went to work at the Department of Justice as a librarian, but she used to say that she passed every part of the D.C. Bar eight times, but never could get them all together at the same time. So it took her eight times to pass the Bar. She kept trying it and didn't give up.
ANN MCCOLL:
She must have been one of the first women lawyers.
DANIEL POLLITT:
She was a very early lawyer. I think there four or five women lawyers in the Department of Justice and they were all in the Lands Division which is eminent domain things, not considered fit for men's work or something. Then she went to the Department of Interior where she was assigned to writing the book on Indian law. A man named Felix Cohen was the solicitor or the Chief Counsel at the Department of Interior. And this was when Harold Ickes was the Secretary of Interior. They decided to compile a book on Indian law, so they did. It's called Cohen on Indian Law and in the beginning he acknowledges two or three people including my mother. So she spent a couple of years on that. Then when World War II came along, she went to the War Relocation Authority which was when they interned the Japanese and so there was a small complement of people. They were mostly social workers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work to take care of the Japanese in their internment. There was a small handful of lawyers including my mother. So she would go to the various camps and talk to the people who had legal problems. So, she was the spokesperson for the Japanese and their wants.
ANN MCCOLL:
You've written about this since then. Did you become interested in it because of your mother's work?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Well, yes, because by that time I was in the Marine Corps in the Pacific and was fighting the Japanese. I'd get the letters from all these remote places and my mother would be telling me what a horrible life the Japanese had. They'd take one family of five and put them in a one room place and destroy their dignity. I'd get these letters and I'd write back and say, "Gee, it's tough." So that's what she did. Then when the war was over, she went back to work at the Department of Interior. She did tort work. Whenever there is a Department of Interior agent of instrumentality causes damage and it's under five thousand dollars, you file an administrative claim and it went to my mother. If she thought that there was fault or negligence she would void the thing. So she would write opinions. People would be bitten by the squirrels at the White House or I remember when the canoe turned over in Monmouth Cave. But mostly it was Department of Interior trucks would hit somebody.
ANN MCCOLL:
So she was like an administrative law judge?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes. Then she fell down in the bathtub one night. It was when Eisenhower took office and they brought in some young lawyer to share her office who didn't do anything except watch her. All the lawyers in her area, the General Counsels, suddenly were given a roommate. So they figured as soon as the roommate caught on they were going to be fired, because they had no security as lawyers then. She fell down and hurt her head and they gave her physical retirement. So she retired and practiced law out of her apartment in Georgetown. She did a lot of lobbying for people and did all the neighbors' problems. So she did that until she died which was two or three years ago.
ANN MCCOLL:
How old was she when she died?
DANIEL POLLITT:
She was eighty-eight or something.
ANN MCCOLL:
So, she continued to practice law into her eighties?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes. She had all sorts of cases like. For a while we lived in an apartment in Georgetown. She'd call me up and say, "The janitor's having trouble. He wants to get a divorce so he can marry his wife." And I said, "What do you mean?" "Well, he had never divorced his wife of twenty years ago and wanted to marry the woman he had been living with ever since." So I would do that or she would do it. People would get hit by cars. The first negligence case that recovered against Georgetown Hospital when a doctor cut off the wrong leg. He actually did. It was a neighbor and my mother sued. At that time doctors would not testify against other doctors and there were really no malpractice cases. She did that bit, you know. She got money for the guy. He was an old fellow and lost his leg, met a young woman and got married, went to Florida and died about three months later. So that's my mother.