African American Lawyers/Attorneys, Kentucky, 1880-1940(start date: 1880 - end date: 1940)
By Reinette F. Jones, February 24, 2019
"Negro Lawyer at Auction" were the words on an ad placed in the Louisville Courier in 1849. He was not referred to by name but rather by the description of "yellow man." The lawyer was an enslaved man who would go to the highest bidder at the office of J. S. Young on 5th Street in Louisville, KY, starting at 9:30 a.m.
The "yellow man" was said to be half mixed with Anglo-Saxon blood who possessed the very unusual skill of being a "good rough lawyer." His skills were said to be good enough for him to take on a common law case or a six-penny trial before a County Magistrate. He could also take depositions, make out legal writings, browbeat witnesses, and use other tricks of the trade.
The lawyer/slave was presented in the ad as a deviation from the norm, a better bargain because of his intelligence and skill, though there was also mention of his second tier worth: his stout, active, 175-pound body.
For Kentucky, it was a one of a kind enslaved sale ad. Other than the ad, nothing more was documented about the "yellow man." He was probably the first and only African American lawyer in Kentucky at the time. [Source: Lincoln and the Bluegrass: slavery and Civil War in Kentucky, by W. H. Townsend]
Forty years later, when all had been long forgotten about the "yellow man," the state of Kentucky had become a major contributor to the increasing number of African American lawyers in the United States. Central Law School in Louisville was one of the main reasons for the contribution since it was the only law school in the United States solely supported by African American citizens.
Central Law School was established in 1890, one of four law schools in the United States open exclusively to African Americans. There were approximately 100 graduates from the school, a lot more than the three or four African Americans who could be counted among the 1,981 Kentucky lawyers noted in the 1880 U.S. Census. Twenty years later there were 25 African American lawyers in Kentucky, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In addition to the law school, the city of Louisville had also become known as a place that employed African American lawyers. A few other Kentucky cities also had more than one African American lawyer, including Hopkinsville and Lexington.
The whole process of educating and allowing African American lawyers to practice law in Kentucky was a new mindset that started in the 1870s. Before that, like the case of the "yellow man," the idea of African American lawyers had been an anomaly that got reported in Kentucky newspapers. [Sources: The Encyclopedia of Louisville, by J. E. Kleber; and 1880 Census: Volume 1, Statistics of the Population of the United States. The Tables of Occupations. Table XXXI, p. 733].
On the front page of the Louisville Daily Democrat dated 12/9/1866, the death notice of John S. Rock, Esq., the well-known colored lawyer in Boston, MA, was published. Rock had been approved by Hon. Charles Sumner to become the first colored man to be admitted to practice by the state's Supreme Court. Several months earlier, in the Louisville Weekly Courier, 3/28/1866, on page two under the heading "Liberia," was the article that reported Henry W. Johnson, Esq., from Canandaigua, NY, had happily emigrated with his family to Liberia, Africa, in June of 1865. Prior to leaving the United States, the New York Supreme Court had admitted Johnson to practice law.
There was eventually news from Kentucky. Nathaniel R. Harper had been studying law under George H. Penniman since 1860, and another student of law was George A. Griffith, a storekeeper in Owensboro, KY. In 1871, both men were the first African Americans admitted to the Kentucky Bar [source: Central Law School 1890-1941, a University of Louisville webpage]. Griffith practiced law in Owensboro, Harper in Louisville, where he opened the Harper Law School within his law office. It was the first law school for African Americans in Kentucky. The Harper Law School was merged into the newly established Central Law School that opened in Louisville in 1890. The school closed in 1941.
The other three African American law schools in the U.S. were Howard Law School in Washington, D.C; Central Tennessee Law Department in Nashville, TN; and Shaw University Law School in Raleigh, NC. The number of African American lawyers was on the rise, and Kentucky was at the forefront of the movement.
Isaac E. Black, Sr. would soon make his way to Louisville. He too was an early African American lawyer in Kentucky. From 1869-1874, he was employed as a janitor in the Kenton County Courthouse in Covington, KY that had a law library; by default, Issac E. Black, Sr. also became the unpaid law librarian for five years while reading law under John G. Carlisle. Black was admitted to the bar in 1874, and would partner with Nathaniel Harper in Louisville to form Kentucky's first African American law firm. As the number of African American lawyers began to increase in Kentucky, the local newspapers would notify the public with news of the "colored lawyer" who passed the bar exam and was permitted to practice law as well as court cases being handled by colored lawyers.
Practicing law in Kentucky was a challenge for African American lawyers: the racism and injustices in everyday life were also present in the courtroom and could carry over into life outside the courtroom. But in spite of all that, being a lawyer in Kentucky was a highly respectable profession for African Americans, even when it did not pay well. The majority of the African American lawyers in Kentucky had other income sources, including working as janitors, ministers, and teachers, while others had political careers, were postal workers, or had other government employment.
Within the census records and city directories, often the "other" job is listed as the primary occupation. Isaac E. Black, Sr. was among the few who were consistently listed in the Louisville city directories as a "lawyer." The city directories and the U.S. Census records are only two of the many sources that were consulted in order to find the names of African American lawyers who practiced law in Kentucky between 1880 and 1900. James A. Chiles, James W. Schooler, Charles Morris, Benjamin E. Smith, and R. C. O. Benjamin were all in Lexington. James Robert Spurgeon was in Maysville; George A. Griffith and Edward A. Watts in Owensboro; Rev. J. C. Menson in Danville; John Dickens and Robert Lander in Hopkinsville; and the same Benjamin E. Smith in Bowling Green later moved to Lexington. J. A. Fountain was in Russellville. Nathaniel Harper, Isaac E. Black Sr., W. H. Perry Sr., Samuel Curtis, J. H. Lawson, Marshall W. Taylor (Boyd), Albert S. White, J. Allen Ross, and L. H. Thurston were all in Louisville. R. L. Anthony and J. P. Jetton were instructors at Central Law School. [Sources: Central Law School 1890-1941, a University of Louisville webpage; U.S. Census Records; p. 24 in The American Lawyer, vol. 1, January-December 1893; Emancipation: the making of the Black lawyer, 1844-1944, by J. C. Smith, Jr.; A History of Blacks in Kentucky, vol. 1, by M. B. Lucas; "Creating windows of opportunity: Isaac E. Black and the African American Experience in Kentucky," The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol. 98, issue 2 (2000), pp. 155-177; Rev. J. C. Menson in The Frankfort Roundabout, 10/21/1882, p. 2; E. A. Watts in The Hartford Herald, 8/25/1897, p. 1; "First Negro lawyer," Crittenden Press, 3/16/1899, p. 1; Kentucky city directories in Ancestry; and various newspaper articles within the Kentucky Digital Newspaper Program at the University of Kentucky].
It seemed that African American lawyers were in Kentucky to stay. Their arrival had been a slow but steady progression. According to the U.S. Census, there were 25 Negro [African American] lawyers in Kentucky in 1900, although looking at the individual census sheets for the year 1900 (Ancestry) and the reports in Kentucky newspapers and other sources, 33 African American lawyers were listed in Kentucky. The eight in Louisville were Isaac E. Black Sr., Samuel Carter, Thomas Hammonds, Nathaniel R. Harper, Albert S. White, H. C. White, Bernard O. Wilkerson, and William H. Wright. There were six in Lexington and six in Hopkinsville, two in Paducah, and one each in 11 other Kentucky cities. [Sources: 1900 Census Special Reports: Occupations at the Twelfth Census. States and Territories (Table 41, continued). Statistics of Occupations, Kentucky, p. 284; and see the list of Kentucky African American lawyers attached to this entry.]
Just a few years later, in Louisville, Sally J. Seals White became the first woman to graduate from Central Law School, and in 1904 she was the first African American woman to be admitted to the Kentucky Bar. However, this was a brief moment of achievement for African American lawyers and African American women. Kentucky was not a state that attracted or supported African American women lawyers. Sally Seals White was the only one in Kentucky, and that was soon forgotten until Alberta O. Jones from Louisville was admitted to the Kentucky Bar in 1959. The first African American woman lawyer in the United States is thought to have been Charlotte E. Ray, who was born in New York and who graduated from Howard Law School in 1877. The first African American man licensed to practice law was Macon Bolling Allen, who was born in Indiana and moved to Maine, where he passed the bar in 1844.
Leaving the home state to practice or study law was also common for African American Kentuckians. Between 1880 and 1900, there were at least 15 African American lawyers from Kentucky practicing in other states. These lawyers were counted in the U.S. Census sheets and other sources: Tabbs Gross in Little Rock, AR, 1869; T. P. Johnson in Little Rock, 1872; and Daniel Webster Lewis in Marion, AR, 1873; Graham Deuwell in Springfield, OH, 1880; Edward Shaw, in Memphis, TN, 1880; James E. Jones, in Chicago, 1882; Charlton H. Tandy, in St. Louis, MO, 1888; William H. Twine in Limestone County, TX, 1888 and the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, 1891; William H. Payne in St. Louis, MO, 1890; George W. Lytle, in Chicago, IL, 1890; Charles H. Brooks in Washington, D.C, 1892; John W. Clark in Lawrence, KS, 1897; James N. Simms in Indianapolis, IN, 1898; and James Alexander Ross in Buffalo, NY, in the 1890s. Alfred C. Cowan, in Brooklyn, NY in the 1890s, was the husband of Lutie A. Lytle.
By the year 1900, there were at least 23 African American Kentuckians practicing law in other states. Six of the lawyers were in Chicago, IL: T. W. Brown, James E. Jones, George W. Lytle, Moses A. Mardis, Edward H. Morrow, and James N. Simms. The state of Illinois had the second highest number of African American lawyers in the U.S. in 1900. The city of Chicago would continue to count Kentuckians among its African American lawyers. [Sources: see the list of Kentucky African American lawyers attached to this entry; the alphabetical list of states with the number of African American lawyers for the year 1900, attached to this entry; and the Arkansas Black Lawyers website].
The U.S. Census Bureau made a count of African American lawyers for the first time in 1900, finding 715 African American lawyers in 37 states and Washington, D.C. The highest numbers were in Tennessee with 73, Illinois with 54, and 53 in Virginia. On the low end, there was one each in Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. Kentucky and North Carolina had 25, above the average of 19.32. [Sources: see the list attached to this entry for the alphabetical list of states and the number of African American lawyers in 1900; and 1900 Census Special Reports: Occupations at the Twelfth Census. States and Territories (Table 41, continued). Statistics of Occupations, Alabama-Wisconsin, pp. 220-416.]
The 715 African American lawyers were 0.6% of the 114,703 lawyers in the United States. All but eight of the 45 states had at least one African American lawyer in 1900. Still, it was a terribly low percentage of African American lawyers in the U.S., slightly lower even than the percentage found in Kentucky. In 1900, there were 3,131 lawyers in Kentucky with 446 in Louisville, according to the U.S. Census. The 25-33 who were African Americans represented between .08%-1.05% of the state's total lawyers. This was not a reflection of the African American population in Kentucky but rather more closely a reflection of the percentage of African American lawyers in the entire United States. In 1900, the African American population in Kentucky was 13.3% (284,706) of the state's total population of 2,147,174.
One other note: the increase in the number of African American lawyers was not only occurring in Kentucky but also happening at the national level. Kentucky happened to be at the forefront with the mission being led by African American educators and supporters of Central Law School in Louisville. [Sources: 1900 Census: Volume II. Population, Part 2. General Tables. Occupations, Table 91, p. 505, p. 521, and Table 4, p. 574; and the 1900 Census: Volume 1. Population of States and Territories. Table 1, p. xviii and Sex, General Nativity, and Color. Table 9, p. 483.]
In August of 1909, the Negro Bar Association of Kentucky was founded. Several African American attorneys came together at the YMCA in Louisville and elected Albert S. White from Louisville as president, J. W. Schooler of Lexington as vice president, W. H. Wright of Louisville as secretary, H. P. Alexander from either Winchester or Louisville as assistant secretary, and J. W. Head of Hopkinsville as treasurer.
J. G. Jones of Chicago, President of the National Negro Bar Association, and Booker T. Washington endorsed the organization. The National Negro Bar Association had been established in 1908, and in October 1909 Albert S. White was named president of the national association. One of the goals of the national organization was to have branches in every state; the Kentucky Negro Bar Association was one of the first branches.
In 1910, the U.S. Census Bureau changed how lawyers were counted in the census: lawyers, judges, and justices were counted in a single category. The U.S. total for the combined heading was 114,704. In Kentucky, there were 2,664 males, of which 27 were Negroes [African Americans]. There was no heading for a count of female lawyers, judges, or justices in Kentucky. That is not to say that there were none, but rather that there was not a significant number to be included in the census.
In order to get to the number of African American lawyers only, a more accurate count was made by reviewing the individual census sheets and other sources as listed on the spreadsheet attached to this NKAA entry. It was found that there were at least 32 African American lawyers in Kentucky in 1910, with nine in Louisville, five in Hopkinsville, four in Lexington, two in Owensboro, and one each in 12 other cities.
At the same time, there were just as many African Americans from Kentucky practicing law elsewhere, with 34 in 13 other states. Most were in the west and Midwest with seven practicing law in Illinois (five in Chicago), five in Kansas, and four each in Missouri and Oklahoma. In Kansas there was Samuel S. Cary in Topeka, and John W. Clark, born in Lexington, KY, was in Lawrence; he was the first African American graduate from the University of Kansas School of Law. Also in Kansas, brothers Archie and George French were in Wyandotte; and Henderson Graham from Simpson County, KY was in Mound City, the first and only African American lawyer in Mound City for more than 35 years. [Sources: 1910 Census: Volume 4. Population, Occupation Statistics. Chapters 1 & 2: Enumeration and Classifications at the Thirteenth Census; Summary and Analysis of Results, p. 53; and the 1910 Census: Volume 4. Population, Occupation Statistics. Table 7, Kentucky, pp. 463-465. See also NKAA entry From Kentucky to Linn County, Kansas.]
By 1920, there had been a sharp turn for Kentucky which shifted the balance. While there were at least 22 African American lawyers in the state, the number was almost half of the 42 African American Kentuckians practicing law in 13 other states. It had become evident that there were more employment options elsewhere.
The Kentucky cities with the most African American lawyers in 1920 were Louisville with 10 and three each in Lexington and Hopkinsville. Outside the state, there had been a greater move to the west, midwest, and northeast. There were at least 13 African American Kentuckians practicing law in Illinois, 11 of them in Chicago. There were four each in Missouri and Oklahoma; three each in Washington, D.C., Indiana, Michigan, New York, and Ohio; and two in Kansas.
On the national level, there were 122,519 lawyers, judges, and justices counted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1920. Of that number, 950 were Negroes [African Americans], including four females. It was the first time the Census Bureau publications had included a listing for females in the total count of lawyers, judges, and justices. The Kentucky total was 2,382 with 14 females. None of the females was African Americans in Kentucky. [Sources: see the list of Kentucky Africans American lawyers attached to this entry; the 1920 Census: Volume 4. Population, Occupations. Chapter 3: Color or Race, Nativity, and Parentage of Occupied Persons, Table 5, Population, p. 356 & Occupations p. 357; and Chapter 2: Number and Sex of Occupied Persons. Table 15, Population, p. 88].
In 1930, the numbers had not changed much; there were 42 African American Kentuckians practicing law in 11 other states, while in Kentucky there were 24 African American lawyers. For those out-of-state, most were in Illinois (16), with 15 in Chicago; and six were in Indiana with five in Indianapolis. Inside Kentucky, 14 of the 24 African American lawyers were in Louisville, while there were two in Hopkinsville, two in Lexington, two in Paducah, and one each in four other cities.
Central Law School in Louisville had done well, but the end was drawing near; the school closed in 1941. In 1940, there were 22 African American lawyers in Kentucky with 17 in Louisville, two in Hopkinsville, and one each in Frankfort, Lexington, and Paducah. Those who had been in other Kentucky cities were no longer there. Out-migration and the economics of the Great Depression had influenced the number of African American lawyers. Outside Kentucky, in 1940, there were 25 African Americans from Kentucky practicing law in 10 states, with 10 lawyers practicing in Illinois, all in Chicago.
"A Colored Lawyer in London," New National Era, 1/26/1871, p. 4.
"Kentucky's Negro Lawyers: something about the two colored men who have been admitted to the Louisville Bar. From the Louisville Courier-Journal, Nov. 25," New York Times, 11/28/1871, p. 5.
"Lawyers Should Organize," New York Age, 10/14/1909, p. 4.
C. H. Houston, "The Need for Negro lawyers," The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 4, no. 1 (Jan., 1935), pp. 49-52.
W. J. Leonard, "The Development of the Black Bar," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 407, Blacks and the Law (May, 1973), pp. 134-143.
C. K. Harper, "Some Black Lawyers in the Post-Civil War South," Litigation, vol. 3, no. 3. Major and Complex Litigation, (Spring 1977), pp. 41-42.
J. Clay Smith, Jr. “The Black Bar Association and Civil Rights,” Creighton Law Review, 1982, vol. 15, pp. 651-679.
“Black lawyers are a rarity in Lexington,” Herald-Leader, 5/1/1988, pp. B-1 and B-5.