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.
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.
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.
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.
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.