Traci McDonald, as a little girl shopping uptown with her mother at Lang’s Fashions and trying on footwear at Union Shoe Store, was aware of the grand stone courthouse looming above the intersection of South Main and West Beau streets.
The little girl didn’t know back then she was destined to make history at the Washington County Courthouse in not one, but in several ways.
On Friday, for the first time in the county’s 238-year history, a black woman took the oath of office as a Washington County Common Pleas Court judge. And when she ascended the steps to the bench, she became part of a seven-member team, the largest complement of full-time jurists here since the Legislature enacted the expansion of the Washington County Court in 2017. She is also the first black woman to be elected to countywide office in Washington County.
Traci McDonald-Kemp, 48, in a courtroom where she had previously prosecuted criminal cases as a deputy district attorney, fulfilled Gov. Tom Wolf’s nomination. The state Senate unanimously approved her appointment June 27.
Gwendolyn Simmons, whose late husband, Paul A. Simmons, was Washington County’s first black judge in the 1970s, told the packed courtroom, “It is a history-making event in the history of Washington County,” and reminded the audience, “This is a true example of what America is all about.”
McDonald-Kemp thanked the many who helped in her campaign, and harking back she said, “Even as a young child, I recognized the power this place had.”
But she said of becoming a member of the judiciary, “It was never in my wildest of dreams.” She also singled out her father, local civil rights activist James R. “Cookie” McDonald.
“The bridges that he built, the blood, sweat and tears, that wasn’t for me,” she said. “It was for everyone.”
McDonald-Kemp transcended party lines in the May primary on her path to becoming a judge, and the governor appointed her for the remainder of this year to fill the seventh-seat vacancy. She resigned her magisterial district judgeship in the Cecil Township area at the close of business Thursday before donning the robe again in Friday morning’s ceremony.
Her father said before a line of judges and former judges formed for a procession, “Her life speaks for itself. I’m so proud of her, and Washington County will be proud that they elected her judge. She’ll make Washington County proud.”
During the program, he directed part of his extemporaneous remarks to one segment of those gathered in the courtroom.
“I’m saying to youngsters: Dream. Study. Because it all can happen,” McDonald exhorted.
Among them were members of the Fort Cherry Junior and Senior Choir, who sang the national anthem.
Hannah Garry, a rising junior, said at a reception during her first visit to the courthouse, “Traci chaperoned on the Disney trip last year. She was on the bus with us.” A classmate described her feelings as she witnessed history being made.
“It’s more like excitement for her and everything,” said Ayla Podrasky, still on summer vacation because the Fort Cherry District won’t begin classes until Sept. 12.
Meeting well-wishers outside of Courtroom No. 1, McDonald-Kemp described the experience as “exhilarating, but there are no words. Beyond that, there really are no words.”
Phyllis Waller, leader of Washington County Chapter 2291 NAACP, said after the swearing-in ceremony, in which President Judge Katherine B. Emery administered the oath, “I’m so excited. It’s so wonderful for Traci to now be a judge. She’s worthy of it.” Waller has known McDonald-Kemp since she was a child.
“My father (Louis) and Mr. McDonald worked together within the NAACP,” she said.
On Tuesday, the county’s newest judge faces a full calendar including dependency, delinquency and protection orders.
A graduate of Washington High School, Clarion University and the University of Pittsburgh Law School, she and her husband reside in McDonald with their two daughters.
Voters will also see her name on the ballot as she runs unopposed in the Nov. 5 general election for a full, 10-year term.