Victor Cardwell’s parents entered this life in a time and place where opportunities for Blacks were limited.
His mother, Jean Swanson Beverley Cardwell, and father, Thomas Cardwell, were both born in Lynchburg in 1937. They married soon after high school. Jean Cardwell became a line supervisor at General Electric and Thomas Cardwell became head janitor at E.C. Glass High School.
They lived on Monroe Street in the Diamond Hill neighborhood. Two girls came first, then three boys.
“I was lucky,” the second son, Victor, said. “They were both hard-working people, amazing parents, great leaders for our house. In different eras, both would have been college graduates and more probably, but they didn’t have those opportunities presented to them.”
Victor Cardwell had better opportunities, and he’s made the most of them. In January, Cardwell, chairman of the board of directors at Roanoke’s Woods Rogers law firm, became the first Black president of the Virginia Bar Association. (In April, Woods Rogers announced a merger with Norfolk law firm Vandeventer Black.)
The seeds of success were planted early.
“I will tell you, that with no basis in fact whatsoever” — meaning the idea was implausible — “we knew we had to go to college,” Victor Cardwell, 61, said. “My parents didn’t go to college, but we knew … what their plan was and intention was, for each and every one of us. Even more specifically, my mother had the plan that we would all go to UVA. Don’t really know why she thought that was possible for four or five of her little Black children to leave Lynchburg and go to University of Virginia.”
UVA admitted its first Black undergraduate in 1955, but integration proceeded slowly.
The oldest, Renée — six years older than Victor — was the first to achieve her mother’s dream of admission to Thomas Jefferson’s school, where she became an Echols Scholar. The next sister, Reva, became a Cavalier as well.
Victor Cardwell’s admission chances were helped by his standout defensive play at Heritage High School. Recruited by football coach Dick Bestwick, Victor became the next Cardwell to enroll at the Charlottesville school.
Cardwell and Howard Lewis, who played safety, were teammates, classmates and roommates. The Cardwells became a second family to Lewis. “I came to UVA from New York City,” he said. “And so when certain holidays, we didn’t get a whole lot of time off, I ended up in Lynchburg with his family. His brothers, his sisters, his mother and father, they treated me like family.”
Lewis and Cardwell stayed in Charlottesville for summer school, in part so they could work out at the team facilities. “Victor was very driven then as he is now,” Lewis said. “You know, fun-loving, but he knew how to prioritize. And that hasn’t changed.”
Away from the field, Cardwell discovered that he enjoyed classes that gave him a chance to speak.
After graduating from UVA, Renée Cardwell embarked on a law career (she later became a judge). Victor excelled on the LSAT pre-law exam and was set to follow Renée to Georgetown Law School, when he got a call from Washington and Lee University. “A fellow from Lynchburg that I had run track with … had gone to W&L. And I think he may have mentioned to them that I was out there and was looking at an opportunity to go to law school. I was close to [enrolling at] Georgetown and the next thing you know, things fell into place and I found myself in Lexington for three years.”
Cardwell was one of only three Blacks in his class of 130 first-year law students.
“”Lexington is a beautiful and amazing city today,” Cardwell said. “Those mid-80s were a little bit different than it is today. It was challenging. I was at UVA and I had good teammates and I had friends of all races and abilities and inabilities … but going to Lexington in 1984 … and walking into a class where there were just two other Black women, it was at least enlightening. I mean, as a minority in America you see this. You know, you grew up with this, it’s OK. I’m used to walking into rooms or buildings where I’m the first or only Black person in the room. But when you go to law school, and you do experience it, and you’re in Lexington, which is very historical … I remember some comments from people about constitutional basis for various things, including chattel slavery at one point in time. You have to be strong enough to feel good addressing those things, intellectually, academically, and personally.”
One of Cardwell’s classmates was David Carson. “We worked hard academically, as you might expect in the law school, but the law school, at least then, took its intramural athletics very seriously,” said Carson, now a circuit court judge in Roanoke. “We played against the undergrads and played flag football in the fall and basketball in the winter and softball in the spring. So one of the first things I noticed is, he was kind of dominant on all athletic fields, football, basketball, and softball. And I would say the other thing that I noticed about him is he’s got a quiet confidence and leadership capabilities. So people tend to gravitate towards him and look up to him. And I think that same quality has carried through into his professional days as well.”
Most weekends, Cardwell went to Washington, D.C. “It was a chance to get out and be me in a larger environment,” he said.
After receiving his law degree, Cardwell worked for the Department of Labor in Washington. 1991 he joined Woods Rogers as a labor and employment associate.
“Probably didn’t have the best working relationship with a couple of senior partners early on in that timeframe,” Cardwell said. “But the good news is, I had really good friends who were sort of traversing this practice of law with me. And what I also had was, in spite of some of those challenging relationships, some people whom I like very much. And labor and employment law .. is maybe the most interesting work that you can do, because it deals with people, in every aspect of their lives and every aspect of what they do.”
“I love the opportunities to help correct policies, if they need to be corrected, and practices. And more importantly, make sure work environments do allow people to succeed. Because contrary to popular belief, the businesses don’t win when they are losing their good employees because of a bad work environment. They have invested a lot. And what they need to do is make sure they create a work environment where people are willing to stay and grow together.”
A tricky matter Cardwell is currently handling involves a supervisor who inadvertently offended an employee.
“It’s gonna be difficult. And I don’t know how to resolve it. It’s a very high-level person. And the problem is, they were having a conversation with a subordinate. They were addressing a condition with a subordinate that is deemed a disability. And the high-level person probably thought they were offering to assist by offering to take them and help them get treatment or something else. But the person with a disability was perceiving a real denigrating tone. And it’s delicate, because nobody can stand a work environment where subordinates … feel like they’re being harassed or are given a hard time by higher-level people. Conversely, a higher-level person whose heart is in the right place, but, boy, it feels like they’ve done it in a very ham-handed way, have created an environment that I’m not sure how we survive this.”
Cardwell’s work has earned him the respect of his colleagues.
“As I tell younger attorneys, your reputation is everything,” Carson said. “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. And I think Victor’s [reputation] has consistently been excellent. So he makes excellent first impressions, he carries through on those, and I think [he is] very, very well respected, both personally and professionally.”
Cardwell became a principal at Woods Rogers in 2006.
The Virginia Bar Association is a voluntary association founded in 1888. Around 5,000 of the Commonwealth’s 32,000 lawyers belong, Cardwell said.
Virginia’s first documented Black lawyer, Withall Wynn, practiced in the 1870s, according to Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen’s website.
“Victor Cardwell’s election is an important milestone for the VBA,” Bernard Goodwyn, chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, wrote in a statement for Cardinal News. ” It is a powerful symbol of the acceptance of the ever-increasing diversity of the legal profession.”
Said Cardwell: “When I was passed the gavel, and I’ll say it any day, I sit in the seat of the president of Virginia Bar Association because of the great work of a lot of people before me, many, many, many black lawyers in the Commonwealth of Virginia, who were qualified, and many females and many different minorities.”
Outside of Woods Rogers, Cardwell volunteers with numerous charitable organizations. He especially enjoys the opportunity to speak to young people.
“I think that any young person who is operating in this real complex society today is at risk. I think that lower socioeconomic kids, who don’t see the opportunities, are the ones that I try to make sure see, that while I was lucky to have two hard-working parents, I wouldn’t say we weren’t at risk. I would tell you unequivocally that the risk is all around you, depending on where you live. And it doesn’t matter where you live today.
“And so what I’m telling you is you have to believe that you can control your future, you have to believe that people want to support you. You have to believe that there are opportunities out here that are greater than you see right now. And you have to be patient enough to want them to take them, because it is very easy, unfortunately to get caught up in quick return. And when you don’t have much and don’t see much in your present or your immediate future, you start thinking, ‘How do I make it today?'”
The next generation of Cardwells is learning how to make it. Victor Cardwell and his wife, Joann, a nurse, live in Salem; their son Max will attend VMI this fall, and daughter Ariana will attend Clemson.