Introduction to Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife

Map: Cultural Micro-Regions of the Delta, Northeast Louisiana

Working in the Delta

Working in the Delta – Susan Roach
The Rolling Store – John L. Doughty, Jr.
Delta Folks – Judge Alwine Louise Smith Ragland: Louisiana's First Woman Judge – Betty Jo Harris
Delta Folks – Whitey Shockley: Mississippi River Fisherman – Susan Roach

Making Music in the Delta

Telling Stories in the Delta

Delta Archival Materials

Delta Folks

Judge Alwine Louise Smith Ragland

Ouachita Parish

Alwine Ragland's was determined to be self-reliant and to make a difference in her community.

Judge Alwine Louise Smith Ragland: Louisiana's First Woman Judge

By Betty Jo Harris

Editor's note: The following article is based on a series of oral history interviews with and about Judge Alwine Ragland conducted by Betty Jo Harris, with assistance from Susan Roach, for the Regional Folklife Program at Louisiana Tech University, where these interviews are housed.


Growing up in a residence which served as the original Mulhearn funeral parlor, Alwine Louise Mulhearn Smith Ragland, born July 28, 1913, was surrounded by an industry which influenced her life and career. She was born into a family whose business dealt with serving the public on the margins between life and death. Pioneers of the early funeral home business in Northeast Louisiana, the Mulhearn Family felt much pride in their work. Ragland describes her parents and siblings' feelings about their business:

They loved the business . . . That's the only business they had ever known, and they felt like they were doing good for people. Daddy said, 'We are supposed to be Christian Scientists; we don't believe that people die for good, when they die. But we may as well do what we can because as we are now, we die and somebody has got to take care of them. Why shouldn't it be us?' and that's what we did. (5 August 2004)

Audio Player
They loved the business

In Ragland's youth, the family prospered and they projected a future for the young Alwine of beautiful dresses, dances at the country club, and a Principia education. Her older sister Caroline shopped at the Palace, an upscale retail shop located on DeSiard Street in Monroe, and attended Newcomb College in New Orleans.

However, the early success of Mulhearn Funeral Home was threatened by the collapse of the United States economy during the Great Depression in 1929. Young Alwine had just turned sixteen years old and was a senior at Monroe City High School. An inheritance of $5000 from a deceased aunt paid for the Principia education they had envisioned, but she did not have the beautiful clothes and the social friends that her older sister had enjoyed. Her days at the Riverside Country Club came to an end. Instead of purchasing clothes at the Palace as her sister had, her father insisted she buy her clothes at the same store where the funeral home bought garments to dress the indigent deceased. (Ragland 26 June 2004). She also remembered that her expensive piano lessons ended (Ragland 3 February 2005). Ragland says she got through the loss of her social life by eating sweets, which caused her to gain weight and her self-esteem to plummet, making her feel as if she would not be able to marry and have a family (which was not the reality of her later life). Consequently, she used her education to make sure she had the means to provide a life for herself and to become self-reliant.

Judge Ragland in Tallulah City Court. Photo: Susan Roach.

Thus in an era when most women were encouraged to seek traditional female roles such as homemakers and teachers, she pursued not only a college education but a legal career. Entering the field of law was rarely considered an option for women in the 1930s. She remarked, "Look, women did not get any emancipation rights until 1913. My father always reminded me of that . . . that was the year I was born" (Ragland 5 August 2004). She would continue the family tradition of embracing an unusual career of service to people in moments of crisis by studying and later working in a male-dominated profession. She once said, "It took guts to be a lawyer back then. I can say only one thing . . . I relied on religion a whole lot. God would take care of me" (5 August 2004).

The family's worldview was influenced by their religious faith. The belief system which provided balance to Alwine and her family was the Church of Christ, Scientist, more commonly known as Christian Science. This is a Christian-based faith emphasizing God's creation as entirely spiritual and perfect. Its followers believe matter and evil do not exist; mankind only thinks they do. Founded in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy, this relatively modern form of worship became popular in Monroe during the early 1900s. Practicing weekly Bible lessons which revolve around a rotated list of topics gives its followers a systematic, methodical approach to understanding the foundations of their beliefs. The "Scientific Statement of Being" which is read at church services states:

There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter.
All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all.
Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error.
Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal.
Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness.
Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual.
("Church of Christ, Scientist")

This form of religion apparently worked well for a family in the mortuary business. The belief that the human body is considered a vessel which holds man's spirituality could only ease the emotional demands of preparing the deceased for burial. It also provided Alwine Ragland with the needed spirituality to focus on her future despite her fears concerning law school. In fact, she said practicing her faith provided healing after barely passing her probate class.

In addition to religion, Alwine Ragland's solid foundation was built upon family. Older sister Caroline served as a particular source of inspiration. As the oldest of the seven Mulhearn siblings and twelve years older than Alwine, she had graduated from Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans. Caroline earned a business degree, and worked as head of the tax department at the Federal Land Bank in New Orleans until 1929. When Caroline lost her job, Alwine summed it up, "The 1929 crash came and if you were a woman you lost your job, and she [Caroline] lost her job (Ragland 5 August 2004). At the onset of the Depression, single women employees were the first to be eliminated because they were not considered the breadwinners of their respective families. Caroline returned to Monroe and assumed the financial responsibilities of the funeral home from her mother who had passed away in 1931. She also encouraged her sister to follow her career aspirations despite her gender. Alwine remembered, "I adored Caroline because Caroline was always encouraging me to go ahead and other people thought I was crazy as a Betsy-Bug trying to study law. Caroline said I could do it but she wanted me to be a good Christian Scientist, too" (Ragland 5 August 2004).

After obtaining a degree from Tulane Law School in 1935, Alwine Ragland moved back to Ouachita Parish eager to find a job. Soon after her return, she and her father visited with local attorney and family friend Alden Shotwell to discuss her employment opportunities. She remembered their conversation:

I asked Mr. Alden Shotwell if anyone would hire me in Monroe and he said, 'No!' I said I would be a secretary and would be such a good one and they will have to take me . . . and he said, 'No, they won't young lady. If you are going to be a secretary, be a good one and if you are going to be a lawyer, be a good one.' I thought well, I'll show you. I'll be a good one. (Ragland 2 July 2004)

That determination to succeed, even though she had few job prospects led Alwine to Madison Parish. Her father, Pete Mulhearn, had made some contacts there early in his career as an employee with the Vicksburg, Shreveport, and Pacific Railroad. One acquaintance, attorney William Murphy, from Tallulah, had recently died, so Mulhearn moved his daughter to Madison Parish where she opened a law practice in Mr. Murphy's former office. His widow, Mrs. Murphy, provided her with a room in her home which was furnished with a cot and a bowl of water. Mrs. Murphy would become a close friend and mentor to Alwine by giving her sound advice such as the suggestion to always wear a dress.

Alwine Ragland described Madison Parish as a lawless place, "I was determined to be a good lawyer despite the unruly parish" (Ragland 2 July 2004). She accepted a variety of cases. One of her first clients was a young, college-educated man from New York who lived with a woman and their two children on a houseboat which remained tied up on the bank of the Mississippi River near Delta, Louisiana. She was retained soon after Prohibition had been repealed by the 21st Amendment; her client was charged with the illegal production of alcohol with a private still. Enforcement of Prohibition was originally a unit within the Board of Internal Revenue and later was moved to the Department of the Treasury. After 1930, it became the Alcohol Tax Unit of the IRS. The local Internal Revenue Agent, Elliott Coleman from Tensas Parish, suspected the accused of producing moonshine whiskey. Coleman visited the houseboat under the pretense that he wanted to purchase some home brew and was led to the still. After being arrested and fined $1000, the accused man contacted her for legal representation. She had thirty days to produce his bond, and her client suggested she contact a fisherman in Vicksburg to secure the funds to obtain the bond. To meet the fisherman, she accepted a ride in a skiff which was guided by a boy across the Mississippi River to Fisherman's Wharf near Vicksburg. She had driven her car to Delta and walked through the woods and bull rushes to meet her chauffeur. Adhering to Mrs. Murphy's advice, the legal counsel wore a dress and remembered that despite having a set of interchangeable collars made of warm blue flannel, she nearly froze to death as the wind blew through her on the harrowing boat trip (5 August 2004).

Audio Player
Ragland tells the story.

After representing the moonshiner, she recalled not having many clients until a collection company from Vicksburg, Mississippi, asked if she would be interested in working for them. She gratefully accepted the job of "suing people who others would not" (2 July 2004). The collection business was brisk during the depression, and Alwine earned 25% of what she was able to squeeze out of many struggling small businesses in the Delta. She represented a variety of Northern wholesale businesses but one in particular was Brown Shoe Company. Her father suggested that in order not to make the store owners angry she should not state her business while other people were around. He even encouraged her to buy a Coke or something to kill time and then tell them that she was there to collect on an account that was past due. One store owner in Tensas Parish, German Baker, refused to pay the $7.50 he owed Brown Shoe Company because he assumed that no one would file suit for that small amount of money. Alwine Ragland not only filed suit but was successful in collecting the $7.50 plus court costs (Ragland 2 July 2004). As the job required, she covered a weekly 100 mile route from Lake Providence, north of Tallulah, south to Jonesville in Catahoula Parish, and east to Vidalia in Concordia Parish in Mrs. Murphy's Hudson automobile. Eventually, with the help of brother John Ernest, she purchased a Model A Ford for $75 to use on her collection trips. She remembered, "It would stop on the road, and I would get out and take off my shoe and hit the carburetor to get it started again" (2 July 2004). Despite the long days, she enjoyed the work because it paid her bills and she met an assortment of interesting folks along her route. She continued representing various wholesalers until 1941. Without realizing it until much later in life, in this job Alwine Ragland made many of the future connections which led to her successful political campaign for district judge forty years later.

In 1941, most of the male lawyers in the Delta were called to serve their country during World War II. For the first time in her career, Alwine Ragland's gender actually increased the need for her services. Also the demand for abstract work for the oil and gas industry in Madison Parish rose during the war years. She was hired by Texaco because of her prior experience with this type of legal work; she had assisted Tallulah attorney Richard Boney who represented the Federal Land Bank. She learned quickly that oil people expected a more thorough job because Texaco refused to pay her, stating her work was inadequate. This experience she remembered as a learning one (2 July 2004).

Another unusual client during the war years was the town of Lake Providence, the parish (county) seat of East Carroll Parish. The city counsel had passed a tax on property that did not have a toilet. Local attorney Henry Norris, who normally collected these fees had joined the armed forces, so Ragland was hired to continue the city's collection work. Earning 20% of the assessed $250 tax, she averaged approximately $1000 a week. With her earnings, she bought some land from Mrs. Murphy and built an office at 305 North Cedar Street in Tallulah. She practiced law at this location for 39 years, until she was elected as district judge for a new judgeship created in 1974 (26 June 2004).

Family friend Charles Brown represented the people of Madison Parish in the Louisiana State House of Representatives. Seeing a need for an additional judge in the Louisiana Sixth Judicial District which included Madison Parish, he introduced a bill in the House to create another seat. The current judge was Cliff Adams. Alwine Ragland entered the race as an underdog with the encouragement of Representative Brown. Her opponent was assistant District Attorney Bud Seale. Three local newspapers supported Seale with advertisements which ran on the Thursday prior to Election Day. Surprising most of the Delta residents and herself, she won the race in an upset. Most members of the local Bar Association had planned a victory celebration party for Seale at Cliff Adams's office. Ragland chose to celebrate quietly her victory as the first female district judge elected in the state of Louisiana with her husband Leroy Smith, Sr., and his bottle of whiskey (2 July 2004).

After the newly elected judge was sworn into office, she immediately established a reputation of running her courtroom with organization, toughness and compassion. She created a calendar and gave it to all the local lawyers. This calendar outlined which days of the week criminal and civil cases would be heard in each of the three parishes served by both judges. Monday served as criminal court day, and Friday was reserved for divorces and unfinished weekly business. She recalled her relationship with Judge Adams as cordial, but felt he never truly liked or accepted her position as an equal member of the bench. Since he had served longer than she, he asked the Madison Parish Police Jury for an additional $1500 to be added to his salary. The secretary of the Police Jury, Ann Thomas, shared this information with Judge Ragland who complained to the Office of State Judges in New Orleans. The Police Jury was told that they must give equal compensation to both Sixth Judicial Judges (13 July 2005).

Judge Ragland preferred to work out of the small courtroom at the Madison Parish Courthouse. Her court traditions generated much folklore in the form of unusual stories in the legal community. Monroe attorney Mac Wear remembered feeling a bit intimidated when she locked the courtroom doors once court was called into session. He said, "You were either in or out. There was no in between" (Wear 30 October 2012). Confirming the locked doors tale was Tallulah attorney Tommy Bishop. He elaborated further on Judge Ragland's control of the courtroom by describing the long hall one had to enter to get to the judge. A mirror was positioned along the wall of the hall so she could monitor who was entering or exiting her courtroom. Bishop once had a client who appeared before her who was charged with a minor criminal act. Judge Ragland sentenced him to 90 days in jail. Upon hearing his sentence, the client said that he received such a harsh sentence because she had worn her polka dotted dress and everyone knew that she was always harder on you when she wore that dress (Bishop 27 August 2006). Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Felicia Toney Williams, a Tallulah native, said that Judge Ragland decided to be tough because she had to be since she was a woman. She also felt that Ragland wanted to be accepted as a good attorney, and she went to the bench with the same concern. However, she also suspected the type of respect Ragland sought was prompted by fear, so she ruled with an iron fist (Williams 2 July 2004). Judge Ragland said she could run an orderly court because she was a woman. Once she stopped a fist fight between Monroe attorney James Sparks, Sr., and his opposing counsel by actually climbing out of her chair and stepping between the two men. When asked if this interference felt intimidating, she responded that she assumed that they would not hit a woman and especially not the judge (Ragland 2 July 2004).

In 1990, at age 77, Judge Alwine Ragland qualified to run for re-election for a fourth term. In one of the most conservative areas of Louisiana, the incumbent, a 77-year-old white woman, was challenged by a 34-year-old African-American woman, future Appellate Judge Felicia Toney Williams. Age rather than race or gender became the main issue. The Louisiana Legislature had passed a law which set the retirement age for the office of District Judge at 70. After unsuccessfully trying to have her seat grandfathered into this law, Judge Ragland accepted defeat and retired a few days before her term was up. Never one to dwell on her own misfortune and unwilling to end her legal career, she reopened her law office.

In addition to her private practice, she was appointed judge by Mayor Theodore Lindsey in 1992 for the city of Tallulah. While serving in this capacity, Judge Ragland held court every second Thursday of the month in chambers adjacent to city hall. She expressed amazement that she could still keep up such a heavy workload and was grateful that her assistant typed her notes, stating that her handwriting was not what it used to be. At the March 2005 session, Ragland assessed fees in excess of $9000 and collected all but $290 of that amount. Court was called to session promptly at 10:00 a.m. By noon she adjourned after handling over 150 items on her docket (Ragland 6 July 2005). At age 92, she expressed regret that she could not correct all the problems of the city: "I just can't get it all done" (Ragland 6 July 2005).

In her eighties and nineties, she continued to lead an active life. Along with her legal work, she volunteered several days a week at the Madison Parish Tourism Commission and regularly attended city and parish governmental meetings. She also participated in Monroe's Mardi Gras Krewe of Janus and was selected Queen Janus in 1996, an experience she considered to be one of the high points of her life. When diagnosed with osteoporosis, rather than take medication unacceptable for her religious faith, she opted to drive to Monroe from Tallulah to work out regularly with a personal trainer so she could maintain her bones and her figure.

In August 2005 while attending a conference in New Orleans on behalf of the Madison Parish Tourism Commission, she suffered a stroke and was hospitalized as Hurricane Katrina slammed into the city. When the levees failed and conditions in the city worsened, the medical staff felt she should be airlifted by helicopter from New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi. Unable to overcome these health issues which were compounded by the trauma of Hurricane Katrina, Judge Alwine Mulhearn Smith Ragland died on April 30, 2006.

Her determination to be self-reliant coupled with a drive to make a difference in her community drove Alwine Ragland to carve out an unusual niche for herself in Northeast Louisiana. Reflecting on Ragland's life, Tallulah attorney Raymond Cannon said, "When I began to practice law, her reputation as a skilled, tenacious trial lawyer was well known. She earned it and earned that reputation practicing solo" (Evans). He went on to describe the void left by her death, "Her service to the community, not just the bench, is irreplaceable. She really worked hard in recreating and maintaining the local history here" (Evans). While the judge never considered herself a modern woman or feminist, her life story and achievements laid a solid foundation and offer inspiration for future generations of Louisiana women who dream of leading a professional life.

Works Cited

"Church of Christ, Scientist" Religion Facts. 9 August 2009. Web.7 Aug. 2012.

Bishop, Tommy. Personal interview. 27 November 2006.

Evans, Robbie. "Ragland, Former Judge Dies at 92" Monroe News-Star 2 May 2006: 1b. Print

Ragland, Alwine Mulhearn Smith. Personal interview. 26 June 2004.

_____. Personal interview. 2 July 2004.

_____. Personal interview. 6 July 2005.

_____. Personal interview. 5 Aug. 2004.

_____. Personal interview. 13 Jan. 2005.

Wear, Mac. Personal interview, 30 October 2012.

Williams, Felicia Toney. Personal interview. 2 August 2006.

Betty Jo Harris has served as a history teacher at River Oaks School in Monroe since 2008. She received her M.A. from the University of Louisiana at Monroe in 1994. She conducted field interviews for the La. Regional Folklife Program at Louisiana Tech University and for the Delta Folklife Project. This article was written for the Delta Folklife Project and the 2012 Delta Pieces: Northeast LouisianaFolklife.