Joyce E. Holsey
Women Lawyers ~ Women Leaders Arch
Joyce Edline Holsey overcame many obstacles, including poverty, discrimination, and a physical disability, to become the first African American woman admitted to the Arizona State Bar and continued to serve the Arizona community as a legal advocate for the poor. Joyce was born to Jamaican immigrants on January 7, 1927 in New York City, New York. She was raised by a single mother in Harlem and showed her academic excellence early on by skipping several grades in elementary school and gaining admission into the Arista Honor Society in High School. Joyce's excellent grades earned her a spot at Hunter College of the city of New York, where she graduated in 1946 with a BA in Chemistry at the age of 19. Joyce met her husband William F. Holsey Jr. during college and they married on December 26, 1948.
Joyce continued her education by earning a master's degree in education of visually impaired at Hunter College in 1951. She taught elementary school in East Harlem for several years, helping to support her husband while he was a surgical intern. The couple first came to Arizona in the early 1950s when Dr. Holsey was called up during the Korean War to serve as a surgeon with the rank of Captain in the medical corps of the USAF at Williams Air Force Base in Chandler, Arizona. At first the couple, who by then had a young daughter, was unsure about coming to Arizona since it seemed so far away from their home in New York.
After his service, Joyce and her family returned to New York where Dr. Holsey completed his surgical training. The family then decided to settle out west, first looking in California. Dr. Holsey, however, found that the places he was applying to in California were refusing to hire him because he was an African American. Dr. Holsey applied for a job in Prescott, Arizona and, not experiencing the same racism as he had in California, the growing family, now with a second daughter, came back to Arizona in 1956. This would be one of the many examples where the Holseys would find a person who saw past their color, leading them to the conclusion that you should judge people by how they treat you and not by anything else. The family settled in Tucson in 1958 in part because of the diversity and kindness they found in the area. Dr. Holsey set up his medical practice, eventually becoming the chief of surgery and then the assistant chief of staff at St. Mary's Hospital.
Joyce stayed at home for several years caring for her two daughters and her young son. Joyce was a very intelligent woman and even as a stay-at-home caregiver she was always trying to stay busy and engaged in the world around her. As Joyce's children became older and started school, Joyce realized that she needed to find something intellectually stimulating to keep her busy. Joyce's sister had been the first African American woman to graduate from Georgetown law school, leading Joyce to become interested in the law. She returned to school in 1967 at the age of 40 and enrolled at the University of Arizona Law School. Although Joyce was aware of her trailblazer status as the first African American female at UA law, she remained modest and talked little of this achievement. Joyce struggled during her first year, but she was determined not to give up and came back the second year to make the Dean's list for two semesters.
During law school, Joyce began to have trouble with her vision and was eventually diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition (Retinitis Pigmentosa). The disease got worse over time and eventually led to Joyce becoming legally blind. This obstacle only motivated Joyce to work harder and she became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Arizona Law School in 1971. Later that year she became the first African American woman to be admitted to the Arizona State Bar. Joyce believed very strongly in the importance of education. It was education that brought Joyce and her husband out of poverty and she would instill this value in her own children.
Joyce spent the next 25 years employed with Southern Arizona Legal Aid where she represented the poor and disadvantaged. Joyce was drawn to the organization because she felt a desire to help the poor since she had come from a poor background herself. She specialized in domestic relations, representing battered and abused women and children and in immigration law handling the suspension of the deportation of undocumented aliens. Although Joyce represented both men and women, working with women was the most rewarding to her. She strove to treat all of her clients with dignity and respect and often said she was amazed at the impact such simple kindness could make in their lives. Although Joyce had faced the struggles of discrimination she strongly believed in the goodness of people and in working twice as hard to get what you want.
Joyce's most significant case came in 1981 when Joyce represented a Native American girl who had a baby. Her parental rights were being terminated under the Arizona Abandonment Statutes. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982. Although a hearing was denied, Joyce was able to recover the child and keep the family together under the Indian Child Welfare Act. The case was rewarding to Joyce in that she found a novel way to keep a mother and her child together. She was also proud of the fact that she had been able to bring a case to the highest court in the nation, despite her background and the struggles she had faced in her life. She believed strongly in the case, and it was very rewarding for her to prevail.
Because of her motivation, compassion, and determination, Joyce has been recognized with several awards and honors. She was selected to be a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, an honor limited to 10% of the attorneys admitted to the State Bar. In 1996, she was honored by the Southern Arizona Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild for her contributes to Southern Arizona Legal Aid. In 2000, the University of Arizona Black Alumni Association honored her as the Phenomenal Woman of the Year. That same year she was honored with a lifetime-achievement award from the YWCA and was honored at a One Hundred Women & Minority Lawyers dinner sponsored by the State Bar of Arizona and the Maricopa County Bar Association.
Joyce also devoted her time to several organizations. She was a member of the Pima County Bar Association, American Women Lawyers Association, and American Blind Lawyers Association. She was a lecturer at Pima Community College on senior citizens law. Within the Tucson community she was a member of the Board of Directors of the Medicaid Auxiliary of Yavapai and Pima County Medical Societies, Casa de los Ninos, YWCA, Girls Club, and First United Methodist Church. She was also a life member of the NAACP, Charter Member of the Tucson Chapter of the Links, Inc. and Charter Member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
Joyce died September 22, 2006 at the age of 79 after a battle with cancer. Her husband had preceded her in death. She is survived by her children, Denyce Holsey, Dorine Holsey Streeter, and William F. Holsey III, and two grandchildren, Lindsey Streeter and Hillary Streeter.
As a means of honoring Joyce, the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services & Education, the James E. Rogers, UA School of Law, the Sandra Day O'Connor, ASU School of Law, and legal-aid agencies of Arizona joined together in 2008 to create a loan repayment program open to ASU and UA alumni currently serving as Arizona legal aid attorneys.