Harlem legend Ozro Thaddeus (O.T.) Wyoming Wells, Esq., 87, former president of the National Bar Association and recognized as one of America’s leading civil rights and defense lawyers, died on August 25th, 2018 of natural causes.
Renowned as O.T. Wells, his landmark legal career spanned roles as a civil rights sit-in attorney, Richard Nixon military delegate, Watergate advisor, Harlem gangster “Bumpy” Elsworth Johnson’s attorney, Miles Davis’ counselor, member of H. Rap Brown’s legal team, legal advocate for black military personnel in Germany, and the official legal representative for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
Wells grew up in North Carolina during the Jim Crow era, the son of Mary E. Wells and Bishop Wyoming Wells, an original member of the General Board of the Church of God in Christ. He earned a BA from Morehouse College in 1953 and a law degree from Boston University School of Law in 1956.
After law school, he served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, then moved to New York City to embark upon his trailblazing career. By 1959 he co-founded Chance, Mitchell & Wells with William C. Chance, Jr. and Nathan Mitchell. It was one of the first minority law firms in lower Manhattan to focus on criminal defense work. In 1962, he joined with colleagues to form Wells, Brown, Mason, Burns & Hall, one of the largest African-American law firms in New York handling criminal defense, personal injury, civil rights, and a variety of other legal services.
His list of clients included notorious Harlem crime bosses Elsworth “Bumpy” Johnson and “Red” Dillard Morrison; the “Five Percenters” splinter group of the Black Muslims; William Kunstler’s legal team for H. Rap Brown’s Manhattan shooting case; and various attorneys, judges, and elected officials.
At the height of the Civil Rights Era, Wells was co-counsel, along with Attorneys Percy Sutton and Mark Lane, in the first sit-in cases, which strangely enough, occurred in New York City. His list of clients included notorious Harlem crime bosses Elsworth “Bumpy” Johnson and “Red” Dillard Morrison; the “Five Percenters” splinter group of the Black Muslims; William Kunstler’s legal team for H. Rap Brown’s Manhattan shooting case; and various attorneys, judges, and elected officials. From the 1960s through the 1980s he represented one of the country’s leading civil rights organizations, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and its president, Roy Innis.
During the 1970s, Wells was pressed into service for the Department of Defense by President Richard Nixon. “Operation Awareness” sent Wells to Germany with a delegation of three attorneys on a fact-finding mission with a mandate to investigate problems between Black United States military personnel and German nationals. President Nixon’s appointment gave a temporary GS rating to Wells equivalent to a Major General. While President of the National Bar Association during the turbulent Watergate era, he served as one of Attorney General Elliot Richardson’s five-man advisory group for the selection of the first Watergate Prosecutor, Archibald Cox.
During the 1970s, Wells was pressed into service for the Department of Defense by President Richard Nixon. “Operation Awareness” sent Wells to Germany with a delegation of three attorneys on a fact-finding mission with a mandate to investigate problems between the Black United States military personnel and German nationals. President Nixon’s appointment gave a temporary GS rating to Wells equivalent to a Major General. While President of the National Bar Association during the turbulent Watergate era, he served as one of Attorney General Elliot Richardson’s five-man advisory group for the selection of the first Watergate Prosecutor, Archibald Cox.
“O.T. Wells was the consummate leader, advocate, and trial lawyer. He possessed the bona fides —wit, humor, intelligence, knowledge, and oration—to have every lawyer who crossed his path want to emulate some aspect of his being,” said Joseph Drayton, president of the National Bar Association. “As an active Past President for five decades, O.T. Wells groomed our leaders and our lawyers to be our best in service to our clients and community. His impact on the National Bar Association, its leaders, and members is unprecedented and unparalleled and will last for quite some time.”
Sadly, Wells died just two weeks after attending the National Bar Association’s convention in New Orleans. His legacy continues as a former national president of the National Association of Guardsmen, a social group; a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity; and a founding member of the National Negro Golf Association, the oldest African-American golf association in the world.
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Instead of retiring, Wells served “of Counsel” to the prestigious Manhattan law firm Donaldson & Chilliest. He was a member of the bars of the state of New York, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United States Supreme Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second and Fifth Circuits, and the United States District Courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York. For the last 18 years, he served as a guest faculty member in the Trial Advocacy program for the New York County District Attorney at the request of past District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and current District Attorney Cyrus Vance.
In recent years, Wells was the lead trial attorney for the historical litigation to resolve the leadership of The Church of God in Christ, the largest African-American Pentecostal denomination in the world. He was instrumental in setting up the first constitutional convention for the church, which resulted in the establishment of the General Board and Presiding Bishop. Wells served as General Counsel for the church, to the Presiding Bishop, and the General Board of the Church of God in Christ.
Beyond his legal stature, Wells was well-known in social circles throughout the country and around the globe. His talent for cooking and reputation as a raconteur buttressed his love of entertaining. His parties were legendary. “O.T. was generous and hospitable,” remarked his sister, Claudia. “He was a soul food chef of distinction who would prepare delicacies to watch you eat them. ‘Is it good?’ he would ask. And you’d better say, ‘Yes.’”
Wells loved to laugh and could spin stories —more often than not, true— that would continue to evoke laughter years later when remembered. He was known to give nicknames that stuck so well people were often unrecognizable by their given names. He never met a stranger, he simply made new friends. His family and friends seemed engaged in a perpetual game of six degrees of separation as they moved through life meeting people who knew or knew of O.T., and everyone had a story to share involving his legal prowess, his hospitality, or his larger-than-life adventures.
“My father was a giant among men. He loved his community,” said his son, O.T. Wells, II. “He was ardent in his pursuit of justice and had an unwavering love for his family and friends. Our hearts are heavy, but our memories of him are joyful. The legacy he has left is one of which we are proud.”
Wells is survived by his one true love and former wife, Jean Nash Wells of East Orange, NJ; four children: O.T., II (Angela) of Washington, DC; Roland Witter of Atlanta, GA; Rachel Manns (Corey) of Tucson, AZ; and Tandi Laguerre (Ronald) of Boston, MA; three grandchildren: Ghage, Autumn, and Nazir; siblings: Claudia Wells Hamilton (Ed) of Novi, MI; Deola Wells Johnson of Memphis TN; and Lucian Wells of Greensboro, NC; and a host of cousins, nieces, nephews, and people upon whom he left his indelible mark.
A memorial service in celebration of Mr. Wells’ life will take place at 10:00 AM on Saturday, September 22, 2018, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, 132 West 138th Street, Harlem, NY.
Photo credit via Fern Gillespie.