The plaques on the wall just inside the entrance of Thomas Kennedy Sampson & Tompkins LLP (TKST) office on Main Street are a small reminder of how long the Black-owned law firm has been in business. The honors range from one of the partners being inducted into the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers to commendations from the office of the governor and cities of College Park and Atlanta, respectively, to plaudits from The Best Lawyers in America and local publications. There are too many to count or list here.
For the past 52 years TKST, the longest running Black-owned law firm in Georgia, has defended individual citizens and local businesses in cases both big and small. The mission has always been to “represent our people,” said founding partner and current managing partner Thomas G. Sampson, Sr.
“We wanted to create a firm that lasts, because if Atlanta couldn’t have an established Black law firm than where can we have one?,” asked Sampson rhetorically. “The firm is particularly proud of the support from the Black community and the greater community at large. Our aim continues to be to provide the best legal services possible to our people.”
With eight attorneys and just over 20 support staff, TKST recently celebrated its 50-year anniversary in 2021. A party was planned on the greenspace adjacent to the office where dozens of people attended and celebrated decades of service to greater Atlanta. Some TKST employees, which Sampson, Sr. often called “family” during a recent interview with The Atlanta Voice, have been with the firm since the early days in downtown Atlanta office buildings. Gwen Dixon has worked for TKST for the entire time it has been in business. Beth Martin is now celebrating 50 years with the firm, with Nancy Haskell at 42 years and Yvonne Torrence currently on her 38th year of service to the firm.
Many things have changed during the 53 years TSTK has been in existence. These days Sampson, along with his son Thomas G. “Woody” Sampson II and Jeffrey E. Tompkins is continuing the firm’s legacy. During the decades TSKT has been serving the community, attorneys such as former Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard and former Atlanta City President Ceasar Mitchell have passed through the doors of TSKT. The firm’s legacy also extends to the bench as 10 former attorneys have moved on to become judges.
“It means we’re part of the history and fabric of Atlanta,” said Tompkins, a native of Atlanta and Frederick Douglass High School alumnus.
The mission from the first day in business was to have a place for Black attorneys to be able to practice law, according to Sampson, who joined the firm following his graduation from the University of North Carolina School of Law. One of those attorneys happens to be his son, Sampson II, who joined the firm following his graduation from Emory University School of Law.
“I felt like I’ve had the best training. The best lawyers that I’ve seen are right here at the firm,” said Sampson II, who joined the firm in 1994. For nearly 30 years Sampson II has been practicing law shoulder to shoulder with his father. “It’s been a blessing to learn from these guys,” said Sampson II who started the young lawyer internship at the Gate City Bar Association.
Tompkins, who is also a Morehouse man and was inducted into the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA), worked at the firm as a summer intern during the late 1980’s. He was offered a job at the end of that summer since he had already passed the bar and was on track to graduate from Emory University School of Law.
“It was great,” said Tompkins of the opportunity at such a young age. Back then law students could take the bar exam while they were still in law school. “It was affirmation that I had done good work.”
Thomas Kennedy Sampson Tompkins was established in 1971 as Kennedy Bussey & Samson. The firm holds the title of being the oldest black-owned law firm in the state of Georgia.
During the early 20th century, the legal profession posed significant challenges for Black people seeking education and professional opportunities in the legal field. Discrimination and limited access to law schools created barriers for aspiring Black lawyers, but also created the opportunity to start Black-owned law firms.
“In terms of our founding, we started in 1970. I graduated from law school, which was from the University of North Carolina. I joined the firm in late summer with John L. Kennedy and Reuben T. Bussey. They had been in practice, probably six weeks before I joined them. And the three of us were the founders of the firm,” Sampson told The Atlanta Voice.
John L. Kennedy was the first African American lawyer hired by a downtown Atlanta law firm, Alston and Bird, which was then known as Austin Miller & Games. Kennedy had been with them two years before deciding to open up his own firm. Bussey, a graduate of Morris Brown College, also worked at Alston and Bird for a couple of years before he left to join Kennedy.
“As the years passed, changes occurred within the firm, Reuben Bussey died and John Kennedy died in 1994,” Sampson said.
Following the passing of Kennedy and Bussey, the firm continued onward with the introduction of Ari Thomas, a second cousin who played a pivotal role in the firm’s journey. “He introduced me to Kennedy and helped me get started and thus the name changed to Thomas Kennedy & Sampson,” added Sampson.
The decision to prioritize Thomas’ name was in recognition of his stature as a prominent Black attorney at the time. Sampson didn’t want Thomas’ impact to be forgotten.
The Gate City Bar Association, often referred to as the “Black bar” of Georgia, has a storied history deeply intertwined with Thomas Kennedy Sampson Tompkins. Founded in 1948, the association provided a platform for Black lawyers to connect, support each other, and fight for a place in the legal stratosphere. Sampson and Sampson II are the only father/son duo to serve as president.
During its 52 years TKST has represented clients in cases involving excessive force, police misconduct, and constitutional violations.
“I want people to know that there is a Black firm in Atlanta, an all-Black firm, where the partners are listed in Best Lawyers in America, where the partners are listed as Super Lawyers, where the partners are listed as one of the top firms by USA Today and World Report’s tier one top tier Law Firm,” said Sampson II.
The Moment Everything Changed
Atlanta was changed forever when the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) started bringing people all over the city and suburbs by bus in 1971 and later by rail in 1979. TKST was hired as outside general counsel for MARTA in 1973 and was changed forever, according to Sampson, who credited the efforts of the late Lyndon Wade, then the Executive Director of The National Urban League and Jesse Hill, the former president of Atlanta Life Insurance Co. for making that initial connection. Both men, icons among the Black Atlanta business groundbreakers, were on the MARTA board of directors at the time. “They were very committed to seeing that minorities got a piece of the MARTA work,” said Samson.
“MARTA was our first major client,” Sampson remembered. “There was a commitment here that did not exist in a lot of cities. Atlanta being as progressive as it was and as it has been through the years made it easier for these commitments to be made.”
Former three-term Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson was also on Sampson’s mind when he thought of the people that made that MARTA deal possible.
“It was huge. Back in 1973 it was really huge and it provided the springboard for us to bring on other corporate work. A lot of times when you start with the first and provide excellent legal service that first client can be a springboard,” said Sampson.
Gathered together outside of one of its two College Park locations under a blazing morning sun, the partners at TKST pose for photos. It’s hard to get all three of the men together with all of the trial work and depositions they have to handle week after week, year after year. Despite the busy caseloads all three attorneys have, there are also times the attorneys host younger Black attorneys, sometimes without scheduled visits. Sampson II recalled a time recently when a young attorney dropped by the office to talk at 8:30 one morning. Sampson II talked to the young man for nearly an hour before getting back to work. “It’s important to give people inspiration,” he said.
The importance of TKST as the oldest Black law firm in the state to the Black legal community cannot truly be measured monetarily or in wins and losses. “I’m proud of the influence and inspiration the firm has had within the community,” said Sampson II. “I’ve realized how important the firm is from other people.”
TKST aimed high when it was established more than 50 years ago. With lofty goals set, it is more than fare to say those goals have been met. “We’ve done great work for a long time and our success is recognized by those in the legal world,” added Tompkins.
“Our goal, our objective was to be an African American firm that could compete with anybody at any time within our specialities,” said Sampson. “That was what we strove to do.”