A History of African-American Lawyers in Nashville

by Lewis L. Laska

African-American lawyers have practiced in Nashville at least since 1868, when Alfred Menefee, a grocer, received a license to practice before justices of the peace. Menefee thus became the first black office holder in Nashville, also being named magistrate by 1897. Nineteenth century licensing, rather informal, involved two types of licenses for attorneys. The lesser license allowed one to practice before the magistrates and could be obtained simply by gaining approval from a panel of justices and paying a fee. The “regular” license allowed a lawyer to practice in circuit and chancery courts. The approval process required an oral bar exam conducted in open court, where a panel of practicing attorneys peppered the applicant with questions. Judges freely signed licenses, even for black lawyers, but records were not carefully preserved, so the name of Nashville’s first African-American attorney is unknown.

·Gavel and court minutes at the Minnesota Judicial Center (photo by Jonathunder, 2008)

Black lawyers generally needed a white mentor in order to succeed. One of the earliest African Americans to practice in Nashville was Prince Albert Ewing, who studied law under the influential lawyer/politician Edward Baxter. Born into slavery, Ewing had eventually become a Fisk graduate. Many local historians believe that when he obtained a “regular” attorney’s license on September 15, 1871, he was likely the first African American to do so.

His twin brother, Taylor E. Ewing Sr., was the attorney for the National Baptist Publishing Board, and was almost certainly the first black lawyer to represent a corporate client.

William H. Young began practicing law in 1880. He wrested the Republican Party from white control in 1888 and actually carried Davidson County in a race for Congress.

The first African American law school in the South was established in 1879 at Central Tennessee College, later known as Walden University. In 1897 the school graduated the first black female attorney, Lutie A. Lytle, who was also its first black female law professor. The school continued to graduate two or three students each year until it closed in 1903.

Samuel A. McElwee, from composite photograph of the 45th Tennessee General Assembly, House of Representatives, 1887-1888.

The most famous Central Tennessee alumnus was Samuel A. McElwee (1859-1914), one of the earliest black members of the Tennessee House of Representatives. He served three terms (1883-1888) and was nominated for Speaker of the House in his second term. Although he did not win the position, he did receive all the Republican votes in a Democrat-controlled General Assembly. A powerful voice for fair treatment of blacks, he delivered a nominating speech for the vice-presidential candidate (William R. Moore) at the 1888 Republican National Convention. Surprisingly, McElwee told a biographer in 1902 that his color had not been an obstacle to his law practice, and that he had received due recognition from judges and the legal fraternity in general. Another Central Tennessee alumnus, George L. Vaughn, would later convince the Supreme Court (in Shelley v. Kraemer, 1948) to declare that courts could not enforce real estate covenants that restricted the purchase or sale of property based on race.

Although Tennessee passed the first anti-Ku Klux Klan law in 1865 – a law which is still on the books – it was also one of the first states to enact a Jim Crow (segregation) law. Chapter 130 of the Acts of Tennessee (1875) permitted discrimination in public places, from hotels and theaters to trains and streetcars. Among many other constraints on African American liberties, Jim Crow law and custom militated against black professionals, including lawyers. It was soon literally impossible for blacks to study law in the state because no black law schools existed in Tennessee after 1903, and a 1901 statute forbade teaching both races in the same school, public or private. By 1910 only one or two African Americans received law licenses each year in Tennessee.

·         James C. Napier, Colored American Newspaper, Washington, D.C., 2 Nov 1901, p. 1

Probably the two best-known black lawyers during that era were James C. Napier and Robert L. Mayfield, who represented widely different roles African American lawyers were likely to play in the profession. Napier (1845-1940) was a protégé of accommodationist Booker T. Washington, who promoted advancement of the race by working quietly within the system. Napier was rewarded with one of the nation’s top patronage positions available to blacks: registrar of the United States Treasury (1911-1913) under President William H. Taft.  J. C. Napier was not exclusively an attorney. His business ventures included banking and street railways, and at one time he was a trustee of three black colleges. On the other hand, the legal career of Robert Mayfield (1874-1921) consisted almost entirely of litigations against Jim Crow laws and practices. Unfortunately, his work was flawed by technical errors, and he was blamed for mishandling an important 1905 suit against the L&N Railroad Company regarding racial discrimination. Quite unlike the highly principled Napier, Mayfield led a rather dissolute life and was ultimately disbarred in 1919.

·         Jubilee Hall, Fisk University, Historic American Buildings Survey. Retrieved from the Library of Congress <www.loc.gov/item/tn0017/>    

By the 1920s both races had come to regard African American lawyers as marginal to the legal system. Black attorneys tended to be entrepreneurs who sold insurance and real estate, and who promoted such shady public entertainments as boxing matches. Of the nine black lawyers living in Nashville in 1920, only four were practicing their profession full-time.

There were, however, exceptions. The prototypical “new” lawyer – college educated and law-school trained – was Walter W. Walker (1895-1948), who opened his Nashville practice in 1928 and soon became president of the local NAACP chapter. Among other efforts, he filed a lawsuit to equalize teacher pay, thus becoming the first actual civil rights attorney in Nashville.


Previously published in David C. Rutherford, Bench and Bar II, Nashville Bar Foundation, 1981. Used by permission of the author.

Slave to Statesman: The Story of John W. Boyd

by John W. Marshall and Kathy B. Lauder. 

Introduction: Although John W. Boyd was not a Nashvillian, he was one of the fourteen African American men who served in the Tennessee General Assembly during the 19th century, so was certainly a significant figure in Nashville history. In time we hope to include biographies of all these men in the Nashville Historical Newsletter. For more information about these remarkable individuals and their complex historical era, visit the website of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.


John W. Boyd was born about 1852 in Tipton County, Tennessee, to Philip and Sophia Fields Boyd*. On March 13, 1879, John married Martha C. “Mattie” Doggett in Trinity Episcopal Church, Mason, Tennessee. Mattie was a member of St. Paul Episcopal Church, the local black congregation, but the couple was somehow permitted to be married in the white church, with their wedding ceremony conducted by its priest, Rev. C. F. Collins. Anecdotal references suggest that Boyd freely attended services in both churches, black and white.

John Boyd, from a composite photo of the 42nd Tennessee General Assembly, 1881

Mattie Doggett was the daughter of Andrew Doggett, a free man of color. Andrew actually owned property before the Civil War, acquiring some 200 acres more after the war ended. John Boyd’s older brother Armistead was married to Mattie’s twin sister, Nannie Doggett. Neither couple left any children. Their sister Judy married Henderson Stevens, a member of a well-respected, land-owning family in Mason. Judy and Henderson Stevens did leave a number of descendants, one of whom provided much of the information we know about the family.

While Nannie and Mattie Doggett were Episcopalian, the Boyd brothers were originally Methodists, members of what survives today as Alexander’s Chapel United Methodist Church. This church, too, was somewhat unusual in that it was not connected with either the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) or African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches, the historically black Methodist denominations.

John Boyd was a member of what is now Alexander’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Mason, Tennessee. Boyd is the bald gentleman standing in the back row on the left; his wife Mattie, wearing a dark hat, stands beside him. John’s brother Armistead Boyd, seated in front of Mattie, has a light-colored hat and a large white mustache. (Photo used by permission, Tipton County Historical Society)

John Boyd was too young to take part in the Civil War, but toward the end of the war his older brother Armistead left the Sanford place and went to Memphis to join the Federal army. His war record shows that he joined Company C of the 88th U.S. Colored Infantry on Jan. 21, 1865, at 19 years of age. He was mustered out a year later as a corporal. A story still extant in the community tells that, before his enlistment but after all the adult males had gone off to fight, Armistead, still a young teenager, armed himself with a shotgun to protect his master’s family.

Although no information has yet come to light concerning how or where John W. Boyd received his education or legal training, we do know that he was an attorney in the local courts and was highly respected among both the white and black communities. It is likely that the Boyd family had been allowed to obtain some rudimentary education even before emancipation – there is some evidence that for several generations this family of slaves had been high-achievers and had received special treatment from their masters. Perhaps this background gave them an advantage during Reconstruction and helped propel John Boyd into the profession of the law. Despite the Jim Crow laws that disfranchised African Americans during the last decade of the 19th century and removed them from positions of power, Boyd was still representing District 10 as a magistrate on the county court as late as 1900, although by that time he was the only black member remaining on the court.  

John Boyd served as a Tipton County Magistrate well into the Jim Crow era. (Photo used by permission, Tipton County Historical Society)

John Boyd was elected to two terms in the Tennessee State Legislature. In the 42nd General Assembly (1881-1882) he served on the committees for Immigration, New Counties and County Lines, and Tippling Houses. In the 43rd General Assembly (1883-1884) he was named to the committee on Federal Regulations. During his period of service in Nashville, Boyd worked diligently with other African American legislators to overturn Chapter 130 of the Acts of 1875, the first of Tennessee’s Jim Crow laws, which permitted racial discrimination in public facilities. He also attempted unsuccessfully to repeal the restrictive contract labor law, which had the effect of keeping working blacks in bondage.

Republican ballot from 1884 election, when Boyd ran for the Tennessee Senate. 19th century ballots listed all candidates from a single political party. If a voter wanted to vote for everyone on the ticket, he merely dropped it into the ballot box with no alterations (i.e., he voted the straight ticket). However, he could mark through (scratch) any names he did not want to vote for. Black candidates often received many fewer votes than others on the same ticket.

In the 1884 election, John Boyd ran for the Tennessee Senate seat representing Tipton and Fayette counties. When certified winner H. L. Blackwell, a Democrat, died three days before the 44th Session was due to convene, Governor William B. Bate called for a new Democratic election to choose Blackwell’s successor. Boyd challenged the governor’s ruling, saying he was the rightful winner of the original election and had been defrauded of his seat: during the November 4 election the District 4 ballot box had “mysteriously disappeared,” along with at least 400 Republican ballots, more than enough to elect Boyd Tennessee’s first black senator. However, despite compelling evidence – depositions from the sheriff and several election officials that two Democratic election judges had taken the box with them when they left for supper, later claiming that it had been “stolen and carried off” – the Senate chose to seat Democrat J. P. Edmondson. It would be 84 years (1969) before an African American would be seated in the Tennessee State Senate.

John and Mattie Boyd’s home was in the town of Mason, just south of the railroad tracks on the east side of Main Street. John, who outlived Mattie, died on March 11, 1932, at about 80 years of age, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Mason, Tennessee. The following is his obituary, found in the March 17, 1932, edition of the Covington (TN) Leader. It appeared on the newspaper’s first page:

“WELL-KNOWN NEGRO BURIED AT MASON–John W. BOYD, a well-known negro of District #10, died suddenly of heart failure Thursday, March 10th. He was buried the following Sunday. There were no immediate survivors. Well up in the eighties in age, Boyd was politically prominent in the three decades following the Civil War. A resident of a district composed largely of negroes, he was for a number of years a magistrate for the 10th District, and following a split in the Democratic ranks in the years following 1880 was elected to the Legislature from this county. He was also a member of the Covington Bar.”


* Philip and Sophia Fields Boyd were slaves to Henry Sanford and his wife Jean Murray Feild [sic] Sanford (1830-1893). Henry Sanford’s father was Col. Robert Walker Sanford (1802-1861), an early elected official of Tipton County, who had moved to Tennessee from Orange County, Virginia. Jean Feild Sanford’s father was Charles Grandison Feild (1805-1845), of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, and Haywood County, Tennessee. The death certificate of Armistead Boyd, another of Philip and Sophia’s children, indicated that both his parents were born in Virginia. Sophia Fields Boyd’s obituary lists her birthplace specifically as Mecklenburg County, Virginia, which had been home to many of Mason’s largest slaveholders – including the Feild family.  [Note that the African American members of the family, after Emancipation, changed the spelling of their name from Feild to the more familiar Fields.] Another of the large slave-holding families in Mecklenburg County was the Boyd family, who were intimates and neighbors of the Feilds. It is likely that the Boyd name among the Feild slaves came from trading or intermarrying between the slaves of the two families.

Thomas A. Sykes, 1838-ca. 1905

by Kathy B. Lauder.

The story of Thomas A. Sykes is a microcosm of African American life in the 19th century: he rose from slavery to political power in a few short years, only to disappear from view as Southern legislatures once again stripped black citizens of their freedoms.

Thomas A. Sykes represented Nashville in the 42nd Tennessee General Assembly (1881-1882)

Former North Carolina legislator, U. S. revenue official, businessman, and school superintendent Thomas Sykes represented Davidson County in the Forty-Second Tennessee General Assembly, 1881-1882.1 A former slave, Sykes had paid a white child six cents to teach him to read. After emancipation he was elected to represent Pasquotank County in the state legislature (1868-1871) and served on the state Republican executive committee.2 He came to Nashville in 1872 as a gauger, a customs official who inspects, weighs, and taxes shipping containers. The following year Sykes became assistant assessor for the Internal Revenue Service,3 and by 1878 he was a county magistrate.4          

Thomas Sykes’s skills as a public speaker, which had brought him national recognition,5 quickly led him to prominence in Nashville politics. Sykes and James Carroll Napier, “Nashville’s two most important black politicians,”6 worked with others to bring down Mayor Thomas A. Kercheval’s political machine (1883). Their efforts opened up many city jobs to black workers7 and facilitated the appointment of black teachers.8

Sykes was a Republican candidate for state representative in 1880.9 One of four African Americans elected to the General Assembly that term, he introduced five important bills. His attempt to repeal Chapter 130 of the Acts of 1875 was the earliest attempt to overturn this early Jim Crow law permitting discrimination in public facilities.10 The bill failed, even after all four black legislators protested Chapter 130 as “a palpable violation of the spirit, genius and letter of our system of free government.”11 Sykes’s bill recommending a penitentiary in West Tennessee was made unrecognizable by amendments. When the bill passed 41-20, Sykes, who had actually voted against it himself, pleaded unsuccessfully for its reconsideration.12 His bill to admit black students to Nashville’s School for the Blind and Knoxville’s School for the Deaf and Dumb, and to house them in separate facilities, passed 59-1, although the Civil Rights Act of 1875, still in force,13 made such segregation illegal. Two other bills, banning discrimination in jury selection and opening the University of Tennessee to black students, were tabled in committee.14

Sykes served on the State Temperance Executive Committee and made many speeches on their behalf. An 1885 newspaper article described him as “one of the most highly educated and refined colored men we know.”15 In 1887 he became Assistant Superintendent, Colored Department, of Nashville’s new Tennessee Industrial School.  The school, conceived by Judge John C. Ferris after an 1873 cholera epidemic that orphaned many children, was financed by railroad tycoon Edmund W. “King” Cole.16 

Thomas Sykes was placed in charge of the Colored Department of the Tennessee Industrial School in Nashville when it opened in 1887. (Sketch from Ferris, John C., and Edmund W. Cole. Homes for the Homeless, or, Fourteen Years among the Orphans. Nashville: Methodist Episcopal Church South, 1890.)

Sykes’s career after 1890 clearly illustrates the effects of Jim Crow on Southern blacks. After the Forty-Sixth General Assembly passed four disfranchising laws that effectively silenced black political voices in Tennessee, a political pundit snickered in the Nashville Daily American that former Representative Thomas A. Sykes had been demoted to elevator operator in the very Customs House where he had once held a privileged federal position.17  Sykes apparently left Nashville after a highly-publicized divorce from his schoolteacher wife, Viola Hoyt.18  His name does not appear in Nashville city directories after 1893. (2014)


SOURCES:

1 McBride, Robert M., and Dan M. Robinson. Biographical Directory, Tennessee General Assembly, Volume II (1861-1901). Nashville: Tennessee State Library and Archives, and Tennessee Historical Commission, 1979.

2 “Sykes, of Nashville: Relating His North Carolina Experience to a Washington Stalwart.” Nashville Daily American, January 25, 1882. (Reprinted from the Washington Republican, date unknown.)

3 Nashville, Tennessee, City Directory, 1873. Ancestry.com. U.S.City Directories, 1821-1989 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2011.

4 Nashville, Tennessee, City Directory, 1878. Ancestry.com. U.S.City Directories, 1821-1989 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2011.

5 “Sykes, of Nashville.” Nashville Daily American, January 25, 1882.

6 Rabinowitz, Howard N. Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890, 2nd ed. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

7 Cartwright, Joseph H. The Triumph of Jim Crow: Tennessee Race Relations in the 1880s. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976, 132-133.

8 Rabinowitz, note 37, p. 401.

9 Cartwright, 72.

10 “Jim Crow and Disfranchisement of Southern Blacks,” This Honorable Body: African American Legislators in 19th Century Tennessee. Exhibits, Tennessee State Library and Archives.  https://sharetngov.tnsosfiles.com/tsla/exhibits/blackhistory/jimcrow.htm

11 Tennessee General Assembly. Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Tennessee. Nashville: Tavel & Howe, 1881.

12 House Journal, 1881.

13 Lovett, Bobby L. The African-American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930: Elites and Dilemmas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999. 221.

14 House Journal, 1881.

15 “Sykes, of Nashville. A Fellow Legislator’s Handsome Compliment.” Nashville Daily American, July 17, 1885. (Reprinted from Franklin Review and Journal, date unknown)

16 Tyree, Forrest H. A Centennial History of the Tennessee Preparatory School. Nashville, 1985.

17 Nashville American, June 8 and 13, 1890.

18 Sykes v. Sykes, Davidson County Circuit Court, Minute Book 24, 1881, page 180.

SUGGESTED READING:

 “This Honorable Body: African American Legislators in 19th Century Tennessee.” Exhibits, Tennessee State Library and Archives.  https://sharetngov.tnsosfiles.com/tsla/exhibits/blackhistory/index.htm