From Bathrobe to Barrister: Judge Ulysses Boykin’s Journey through History and the Legal Profession

Detroit, Michigan – Ulysses Whittaker Boykin, a judge of the 3rd Circuit Court in Wayne County, has a rich family history rooted in the embrace of prominent figures and the pursuit of excellence. His father, Ulysses Wilhelm Boykin, was a powerful presence in the community, known for his connections and contributions to Detroit’s Black-owned TV station, WGPR-TV 62. Young Ulysses had extraordinary encounters with notable individuals, such as the legendary Duke Ellington, who donned a surprisingly casual outfit when they met. Boykin also developed a unique relationship with Langston Hughes, who personally sent him books after their initial meeting. Detroit’s history and political landscape became an integral part of Boykin’s upbringing as he witnessed the Republican National Convention in 1956 at the tender age of 10, soaking up the ambience at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.

Accompanying his father on “business trips,” Boykin was exposed to a diverse realm of influential people. Ulysses Wilhelm Boykin’s work as a Republican National Convention delegate, public relations trailblazer, and one of the driving forces behind the launch of Detroit’s first Black-owned TV station granted him the ability to transition seamlessly between after-hour establishments and the White House. Through these experiences, young Ulysses gained exceptional exposure and the opportunity to meet prominent figures, fostering his own connections and shaping his path towards a remarkable legal career.

Now 78 years old, Judge Boykin reminisces about the impact his father’s connections had on his own professional journey. His father’s network and the support of the Thomas family, a prominent Black family in Detroit, played a crucial role in bringing him to the attention of prestigious law firms in the city. Armed with a list provided by Sam Thomas Sr., Boykin reached out to firms during his spring break in 1969, ultimately receiving offers from Dykema Gossett, Dickinson Wright, and GM. After careful consideration, he chose Dickinson Wright, where he became the first African American attorney to practice at the firm upon his graduation from Harvard Law School in 1970.

The Judge’s lineage is laced with stories of resilience, service, and determination. The photograph of his maternal grandfather, 1st Lt. Johnson C. Whittaker Jr., depicts a decorated World War I veteran who later contributed to the construction of major roadways in Michigan, including the Detroit Willow Run Expressway and stretches of Gratiot Avenue and U.S.-10. Captain Johnson’s father, Johnson Chesnut Whittaker, faced adversity as one of the first Black cadets at the U.S. Military Academy. His harrowing experience, including an attack by fellow cadets, was later portrayed in the Showtime movie “Assault at West Point: The Court Martial of Johnson Whittaker.” It wasn’t until 1995 that Johnson Chesnut Whittaker posthumously received a U.S. Army commission from President Bill Clinton, granting him the justice he sought.

Carrying forth his family’s commitment to education, Judge Boykin’s father and oldest son, Peter Boykin, served as inspiring figures in their respective roles. As a visiting judge, Ulysses Wilhelm Boykin’s pioneering work as an attorney paved the way for racial integration in prominent law firms. Peter Boykin, a history instructor at Wayne County Community College District, proudly continues his family’s legacy of service and excellence. Living by the belief that every culture has contributed significantly to civilization, he strives to inspire and guide his students towards achieving their goals.

The Boykin family’s story reflects the deep reverence for history and the passion for imparting knowledge they possess. From Judge Boykin’s consideration of becoming a history professor to Peter Boykin’s dedication as a mentor and guidance counselor, their commitment to education is evident. Their stories demonstrate the profound impact that individuals can have on their communities and the continual pursuit of excellence. These legacies of resilience, leadership, and service are a testament to the Boykin family’s profound place within Detroit’s history and their enduring impact on future generations.