Jeh Johnson, April Ryan, & Deep Roots of Diversity at Paul, Weiss Law Firm

I was filled with pride when President Barack Obama appointed Jeh Charles Johnson to become our nation’s Secretary of Homeland Security. Jeh Johnson’s grandfather had served as the first African-American president of Fisk University, where my parents were on the faculty. In fact, it was Dr. Charles S. Johnson who gave my parents their wedding at the Fisk Memorial Chapel, since my mother’s father had died when she was a young girl. Dr. Johnson had indeed become a father-figure to her during her early career.

Jeh Charles Johnson, former Secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama

Dr. Charles S. Johnson, first black president of Fisk University, and grandfather of Jeh Johnson

Jeh and I would see each other as children on campus whenever our parents would socialize. Of course we went our separate ways when we left Nashville to go to college, but we would run into each other again over the years when we returned to visit. When Jeh returned to Fisk in 2013 to receive an honorary doctorate, we touched base again and caught up on each other’s recent activities. His parents came to witness the occasion, and my 92-year-old father was present as usual to direct the Hallelujah Chorus after degrees were conferred upon the graduates.

This was during the time when I was promoting the newly released DVD of my documentary film, and Jeh, his sister and parents were delighted to receive copies. We exchanged contact information and promised to stay in touch.

A few weeks later I received an invitation to the annual Paul, Weiss Diversity Networking Reception at Lincoln Center. Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison, LLP - where Jeh Johnson is partner - is one of the oldest, most prestigious law firms in New York City, and was the first law firm in the city to hire an African-American attorney. In addition, all three female members of the Supreme Court of the United States began their legal careers as summer associates at Paul, Weiss. I have attended each networking reception since then, and have been able to hear speeches presented by Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Congressman Harold Ford, and educator/author Geoffrey Canada. This year the guest speaker was White House Correspondent April Ryan, who was recently called out by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer for “shaking [her] head” during a briefing. Since then she has been a much sought-after political commentator on various cable news channels, and has recently published a book titled The Presidency in Black and White.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray addressing the crowd.

Jeh Johnson welcoming the guests.

Guest speaker April Ryan, author and White House correspondent

The Paul, Weiss Diversity Networking Reception is famous for its fabulous food and free-flowing cocktails and wine. At past receptions I’ve been able to chat with such notable legal celebrities as David Dinkins and Elizabeth Holtzman. After the reception we are all invited to Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club where wine and beer continue to flow freely, and stuffy lawyers are finally loose enough to shake a tail-feather.

Nina Kennedy and young, hopeful attorneys

This year I was able to chat briefly with Jeh Johnson about the nightmare I was enduring involving my inherited property in Charleston, West Virginia. At the moment he was rather pre-occupied, but he told me to email him with the details. His wife later urged me to stay on top of him about it.

Jeh Johnson and Nina Kennedy at a previous networking reception

April Ryan and I had met a few years ago when the NAACP national convention was here in New York, and President Obama gave a speech for the closing night gala. Then she gave me advice on whom to approach in the media regarding the promotion of my film. This year when Jeh Johnson re-introduced us, she advised me to go to the media with the story about my Charleston property and the crooked local officials who were trying to rob me of my inheritance. We had a delightful, lively chat, and she signed my copy of her book with the words, “Aspire to inspire.” I hope to present a book review on her oeuvre in the coming months.

Nina Kennedy and April Ryan before talking about Sean Spicer and the Trump administration

Nina Kennedy and April Ryan while talking about Sean Spicer and the Trump administration

To read the article on my nightmare in Charleston, West Virginia, click here.

Meanwhile we look forward to attending future Paul, Weiss Diversity Networking Receptions, being updated on the careers of new friends and colleagues we’ve met there, and being able to toast to their success.

FYI… Before his appointment as Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson had worked tirelessly to overturn the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy instituted under the Clinton Administration. His work was praised and deeply appreciated by the LGBTQ community. We owe him a debt of gratitude.

by Nina Kennedy


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