2004 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Find out what you are passionate about and give it your all. Don’t take shortcuts."
Gabrielle Kirk McDonald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1942. Her father worked as a dining car waiter for the railroad, following service in World War II. They lived in a small apartment above a mortuary, but didn't stay there long. Her parents divorced when she was four, and McDonald and her mother moved to Washington, D.C. They took up residence in an apartment in a poor neighborhood, where McDonald was usually left with sitters while her mother worked. Before long, McDonald's mother's dreams of being an actress lured her to New York. They lived in Harlem while McDonald's mother worked as a secretary for newspapers and magazines, and at one point worked for the United Nations. She was often the understudy for plays off-Broadway.
"My mother was the center of my life," says McDonald. "We were alone for a long time and she influenced me in many ways. She was half white and her skin color, unlike mine, was light enough that she could have passed for white, but she never chose that path. Instead, she spoke out against racial injustices. She was a fireball and I admired her tenacity, her sense of being a survivor."
McDonald's mother had always wanted a college education, but was never able to afford it for herself. She often took classes at night and told her daughter that education was something that could never be taken away. When McDonald was eight, she and her mother moved to Riverdale, New York, where they lived in a high-rise apartment in a white neighborhood. This was a difficult time for McDonald. Racial slurs were shouted at her and she often felt rejected and inferior. Finally, she ran away with a girlfriend. A policeman found her and returned her to her mother, who then sent her to St. Paul to spend time with her grandparents.
In St. Paul, McDonald attended an all-black Catholic school and enjoyed her grandparents' all-black neighborhood. "I stayed there for over a year and had a solid group of friends," she says. "When my mother remarried, I returned to New York. My brother also came to live with us. It was a big adjustment for me. We lived in a very bad neighborhood where I saw people selling drugs regularly. My school was a tough place, much like the blackboard jungle. I remember once coming out for a fire drill and seeing a chalk outline of a dead person. Crime was all around us and everyone seemed to accept that. It was a scary time for me and more than once I ran all the way home."
When she was in high school, the family moved to Teaneck, New Jersey. Tall and a natural athlete, she played field hockey and was president of the girls' leadership club. Her yearbook states that she is one of the "nicest" and "most liked girls" in the class.
McDonald attended Boston University, where she worked in the school kitchen. She joined an all-black sorority and was president of her pledge class. In the summer, she worked with the New York telephone company. After three semesters, she transferred to Hunter College. The tuition was lower than Boston, but the classes were demanding and challenging. McDonald worked hard in her history major and was admitted to the honor society.
In 1961, she attended a conference that celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. She listened to speakers from Howard University and was immediately inspired to be a part of the civil rights movement. She attended Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., where she flourished. She delved into her studies and worked as a research assistant. In her second year, she earned a scholarship from the Ford Foundation. She went on to serve as secretary of the student bar association and was associate editor of the law journal. She graduated cum laude and first in her class.
McDonald began her career as a civil rights lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in New York City. In 1969, she set up in practice with Mark McDonald, her then husband, in Houston, Texas. Their practice was in employment discrimination cases against major corporations and labor unions. In 1979, at the age of 37, she was appointed a Federal District Judge for the Southern District of Texas by President Carter. She was the first African-American to be appointed to the federal bench in Texas, and only the third African-American woman to be appointed in the country. During her tenure until 1988, McDonald took part in a number of high profile cases, including one in which she ruled against the Ku Klux Klan despite death threats to her.
In 1993, McDonald was elected by the General Assembly of the United Nations to deal with the atrocities of the war in the former Yugoslavia. In 1997, she was elected by her fellow judges to serve as president of the International Criminal Tribunal. Later, she served as special counsel for human rights to the chairman of the board of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, Inc. She also became a judge with the Iran-U. S. Claims Tribunal, which was set up to resolve claims that resulted from the hostage crisis.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said of Judge McDonald, "She was one of the pioneer civil rights litigators in our country. She went on to become a pioneer justice for international war crimes law." These words touched McDonald deeply. She says, "We're here for a reason. We have to do something for each other and ourselves. I think success is about making a contribution, making a difference."