Richmond Free Press photographer Sandra Sellars made history when she covered the historic investiture of Cleo E. Powell, the first Black woman Supreme court justice in Virginia’s history, last week.

When the prize-winning photographer arrived at the state’s highest court to cover the Powell formal installation, she became both the first Black newspaper photographer to cover an investiture in the 232-year history of the court, which is located across the street from the State Capitol, and the first woman newspaper photographer to cover a Supreme Court investiture, according to Free Press research.

Overton Jones, a retired Richmond daily editor, agreed that Sellars was a likely gender history maker in Richmond journalism. “I don’t recall any” woman photographer covering a Supreme Court investiture, said Jones, who worked first for the defunct Richmond News Leader and later for the Richmond Times-Dispatch a total of 55 years, beginning in 1938.

Sellars’ presence added to the historical significance of the installation of Justice Powell, the first Black female justice elected to the court by the General Assembly.

Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser’s approval of Sellars represents a major victory for the decade-long Free Press campaign to change the court’s guidelines that previously barred photographers from the Free Press and other Black-owned newspapers, as well as those from non-dailies.

Earlier, the chief justice, in response to another Free Press campaign, expunged sexist references from the court’s website.

The racial breakthrough in Virginia could–by example–open doors for Black newspapers across the country. Old rules, based on vestitures of racism remain in high courts and state houses around the nation.

The new Kinser guidelines, for the first time, allow a pool photographer for non-daily newspapers and one, as usual, for dailies. Previously, the court only allowed one pool photographer in the courtroom–and that photographer always came from a White-owned daily or The Associated Press.

For the Oct. 21 Powell investiture, Steve Helber, a veteran photographer for The Associated Press, was designated to provide pool coverage for dailies.

The court notified the Free Press of the guideline change in an Oct. 6 email to Raymond H. Boone, Free Press editor/publisher. The email also notified Boone of the selection of Sellars to “serve as the pool photographer representing non-daily newspapers.” The email was sent by Katya N. Herndon, the state court’s director of legislative and public relations.

Sellars also represented the 200 newspaper members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, of which the Free Press is a member.

The ceremony took place inside the court’s marbled and pillared courtroom that was packed with more than 250 well-wishers. They included U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, Federal Judge Roger Gregory, Gov. Bob McDonnell, Attorney Gen. Ken Cuccinelli, Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones, state judges and legislators, family and friends. Another 250 people watched the 80-minute ceremony in overflow courtrooms that received a live feed.

A solemn Justice Powell raised her right hand and put her left hand on the Bible belonging to her late father, Milas Powell Jr., a Bible held by her mother, Mary C. Powell, and husband of 22 years, Alvin L. Dilworth, a Chesterfield County deputy sheriff.

Then her three children proudly helped the trailblazing justice into her black judicial robe.

The court’s policy change stems from a Sept. 19 meeting between Chief Justice Kinser, Justice Powell and Boone, who was accompanied by Sellars and two other staff members–reporter Jeremy Lazarus and photographer Jerome Reid. At the rare face-to-face between the chief justice and the press, the chief justice also was accompanied by the court’s executive secretary, Karl R. Hade, and Herndon.

During the cordial, hourlong meeting in the chief justice’s office, the chief justice told Boone that the court was seeking to revamp its coverage policies to improve access to its ceremonies. She outlined the two-photographer policy for ceremonial events in the high court’s small courtroom during the meeting. At the time, she would only say the policy change was under consideration.

The Free Press challenged the court’s ban on the newspaper’s access to ceremonies as a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press. Boone also contended that the old policy promoted monopoly journalism.

The Free Press campaign began in 2003 when the state’s first Black chief justice, the late Leroy Rountree Hassell, rejected a pledge to the Free Press to cover his investiture after the pledge had tentatively been offered by the court’s staff.

At the time, Justice Hassell did so to maintain the court’s tradition of allowing only one press pool photographer at such events. “I want to keep everything traditional,” he was quoted as saying. During his tenure that ended just before his death last winter, he refused to consider any change to the policy despite repeated Free Press editorials challenging his position.

The Free Press continued its campaign after Chief Justice Kinser took office Feb. 1, only to be rebuffed in seeking to cover the Sept. 1 investiture of new Justice Elizabeth A. McClannahan.
Chief Justice Kinser set up the meeting with Boone after he wrote her Aug. 30, protesting the Free Press’ exclusion from the McClannahan investiture and past ceremonies and urging her to lead the change in the court’s press policy.

The Free Press also gained support for its position from the NNPA, Virginia Press Association and the Coalition for Open Government.

A standing ovation resounded as Justice Powell was escorted to the bench by three men she said played important roles in her career success: Norfolk native John Charles Thomas, the first Black Supreme Court justice, who is now a Richmond lawyer; Richmond state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III of Richmond and Chief Justice Hassell, also a Norfolk native.

In his remarks at the investiture, Gov. McDonnell, a Republican, hailed Justice Powell’s arrival on the court as fresh milestone in the effort to develop “a more perfect union and provide more equal justice.” He noted a Black woman on the court could never have been imagined in 1623 when the original colonial court of appeals was created or in 1779 when its successor, the state Supreme Court, was established by the Legislature.”What a tremendous day,” he enthused.

He pointed out that Justice Powell was being formally installed, while across the street at the State Capitol, a building designed by slave-holding Thomas Jefferson and built by slaves, filming was going on for a movie about the “Great Emancipator,” President Abraham Lincoln.