Melissa A. Long’s story is one of perseverance. Earlier this year, the Antonin Scalia Law School graduate was sworn in as the first Black justice on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, a career pinnacle that reflects at least a generation’s worth of tenacity.
“I like to say that my story is really a story of the American dream,” says Long, JD ’95, who was also part of another historical moment when her appointment shifted women into the majority on the state’s high court.
This very American story began with Long’s parents. Her father, who is Black, grew up in Blackstone, Virginia, which she says was “a segregated town with segregated schools.” Her mother, who was white, grew up as the youngest of nine children in a poor family in Pennsylvania. Long’s parents met while both were serving in the military in San Antonio, Texas. The couple married in Washington, D.C., one year before the landmark Loving v. Virginia U.S. Supreme Court decision ended race-based restrictions on marriage.
The influence her family’s history had on her was apparent, according to former Mason law professor Maxwell Stearns, who Long worked for as a research assistant during law school.
“[Long] exuded a wisdom beyond her years, one deeply connected with her family’s remarkable history, which made her realize the serious racial injustices, among others, that confront members of our society through no fault of their own,” says Stearns.
Long, who previously served on the Rhode Island Superior Court, says she recognizes the historical importance of her appointment, but she also believes that it is especially critical right now for judges to remember that “we are at a low point in how people view our institutions, including the judiciary.”
She says that when she is on the bench, she tries to remember that behind every case there are real people with real stories to share. “Every single person coming before me has a story to tell that is important to them, and that also potentially has implications for generations of people.”
—Anna Stolley Persky. Originally published in Mason Spirit magazine, Sept. 2021.