John F. Merchant, who was the first Black graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, died on March 5 in Newtown, Connecticut. He was 87 years old and had suffered from cancer. An attorney, Merchant also taught at Fairfield University and Sacred Heart University, both in Connecticut.
A native of Greenwich, Connecticut, Merchant earned a bachelor’s degree at Virginia Union University in Richmond. He then entered the law school of the University of Virginia. He was not the first Black student. Gregory Swanson enrolled in 1950 but left after one-year due to the hostile reception he received on campus. Merchant became the law school’s first Black graduate in 1958.
After a term in the Navy where he learned to play gold, Merchant set up a private legal practice in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He practiced both civil and criminal law for nearly half a century. He also continued to hone his golf game and won two tournaments. But he was excluded from playing at many of Connecticut’s private country clubs.
In 1992 Merchant became the first African American appointed to the executive committee of the United States Golf Association. Merchant provided legal representation to Tiger Woods as he transitioned from amateur status to become a professional golfer.
In 2012, Merchant published the memoir A Journey Worth Taking: An Unpredictable Adventure.