Tennessee’s Historically African American Bar Associations Boast Rich History, Broad Influence

February 27, 2020

This is Part One of a story about the history, legacy, and continued impact of Tennessee's historically African American bar associations. You can read Part Two here.

For nearly 90 years now, Tennessee’s historically African American bar associations have been working to fulfill a number of vital roles in the state. They have mentored and supported prominent black voices in the legal community, including many of the state’s first black judges. They have fought to ensure that all citizens enjoy equal protection under the law. They have sought to build bridges between the legal system and the public through educational outreach and other initiatives.  They have done this and more, despite the opposition, if not outright hostility, African American attorneys in Tennessee sometimes faced along the way.

In the 21st century, predominantly African American bar association chapters in Chattanooga, Jackson, Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis continue to serve the legal profession and their communities. And while many achievements doubtlessly still await, they have already established a lasting legacy in the form of new generations of accomplished attorneys and judges eager to effect positive change through the legal system.

In so doing, these jurists follow the proud tradition of trailblazing bar association members who came before them, including some of the state’s most respected judges, such as Former Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Adolpho A. Birch, Jr., the state’s first-ever African American chief justice; Judge Benjamin Hooks, the first African American judge in a court of record in the state since Reconstruction, and later executive director of the NAACP; and Judge Bernice B. Donald, the state’s first female African American judge.

The beginnings of Tennessee’s African American bar association heritage can be traced back to the late 19th century, when the country’s first black bar association was founded in Greeneville, Mississippi. There, in 1891, a group of lawyers formed the Colored Bar Association of Mississippi out of a belief that “state bar associations were not concerned about the ‘masses of [black] people.’” While this group of Greenville attorneys endeavored to promote the interests of black attorneys “individually and collectively,” the bar association’s president, Josiah T. Settle, noted that “in doing this they cannot fail to promote the interests of the entire race and to contribute to the general welfare of our common country, for we are as much a part of our composite nationality as any element it contains.”[i]

From this foundation sprung the “Greeneville movement,” which saw a wave of predominantly black bar associations being formed all over the country in the ensuing years and decades. This wave culminated in 1925 when black lawyers formed the National Bar Association in Des Moines, Iowa. Several of these founders had previously been denied membership to the American Bar Association.

At this point in its history, the ABA was almost completely segregated. Three black attorneys had become members between 1910 and 1911, but only apparently because the ABA’s executive committee had not realized they were black when considering their applications. In 1912, some Southern ABA members  demanded that these members be expelled. A “compromise” resolution was instead adopted at the ABA’s 1912 convention which stipulated that the race of all prospective ABA members from then on would have to be listed on their membership applications. Since Southern members of the executive committee had the power to vote down any member they chose, this effectively led to a ban on black membership until 1943, when the ABA adopted a resolution stating that membership “is not dependent upon race, creed or color.”[ii]

The founding goals of the National Bar Association set standards for its members that focused on both professional excellence and the pursuit of equality. Some of the goals were very similar to those propounded by the American Bar Association at the time of its founding in 1878, including exhortations “To advance the science of jurisprudence,” “To improve the administration of justice,” and “To uphold the honor of the legal profession.” Others, however, displayed different priorities, such as the call “To work for a more equitable representation of all racial groups in the judiciary of our cities, states, and nation,” “To aid all citizens, regardless of race or creed, in their effort to secure a free and untrammeled use of the franchise guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States,” and “To work for the integration of the American bar.”[iii]

Despite the contrasts between the two associations’ goals, “the N.B.A. was not intended to be, nor will it ever become, the black version of the American Bar Association," as one-time N.B.A. President and the first African American to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Revius O. Ortique pointed out in 1970. This is because the N.B.A. never set out to exclude whites from membership.

“From its inception, the N.B.A. did not restrict its membership on the basis of race,” Justice Ortique wrote. “Admittedly, N.B.A. was and continues to be predominantly black, but it has never been exclusively black. A cursory review of its objectives indicates that it would hope to become a universally acceptable and accepted institution, to which all could join and lend support.”[iv]

The first documented bar association formed by African Americans in Tennessee, the James C. Napier Lawyers Association, was started by a small but determined group of attorneys in Nashville in 1933 as a chapter of the still-young National Bar Association. The association’s founders occupied a profession with high barriers to success for African Americans and had chosen to practice that profession in the inhospitable, often dangerous environment of the Jim Crow south.  Its founding members, who included Walter S. Walker, Z. Alexander Looby, J.C. Napier, Robert E. Lillard, R.B.J. Campbell, S.P. Harris, W.D. Hawkins and Coyness Ennix, represented nearly one-third of the total number of black lawyers counted in the state in the 1930 census.[v]

James C. Napier, the association’s namesake, was a Nashville attorney who rose to national prominence as President William H. Taft’s Register of the United States Treasury. During his lengthy career (he was in his mid-80s when the association was founded) he also succeeded his friend Booker T. Washington as president of the National Negro Business League in 1916, helped establish Nashville’s Citizens Savings Bank and Trust Company, and served four terms on the Nashville City Council where he championed increased educational resources for the city’s black population.[vi]

The impediments to success faced by the dedicated attorneys who founded the J.C. Napier Lawyers Association were multitudinous. On an economic level, they were presented with a limited base of clientele that was disproportionately poorer than the population as a whole. They also had to deal with a legal structure dominated by whites who were often antagonistic to their efforts.

In 1935, Howard University Law School Dean and later counsel to the NAACP Charles Hamilton Houston detailed some of the most pressing problems that black lawyers in the South faced.

“In the past it has been extremely difficult to get the most promising law graduates to go South,” he wrote. “Even students Southern born and bred are loathe to return. They point out that they have no future in the South in politics; little or no voice in determining the officials who administer the law. They are uniformly excluded from the benefits of membership in bar associations, and have little opportunity for professional improvement through free and equal association with their white members of the bar. In many instances, they are the victim of subtle propaganda spread by the lower-class white lawyer to the effect that a Negro throws away his case in getting a Negro lawyer because a Negro lawyer has no influence with the Court.”[vii]

A glimpse at the hostility faced by black attorneys in the South can be found in the results of a survey that Houston had sent out in 1928 to the clerks of court in various Southern counties. Houston asked the clerks if a black attorney had every practiced there.

“No Negro lawyer in this County, Thank God,” read one response from Texas.

“No Negro lawyer in this county now nor has ever been. A Negro lawyer would be as much out of place here as a snow ball…” read a response from Florida.[viii]

With the kind of vitriol evident here, it can be no surprise that black lawyers found themselves at risk of violence while practicing in the South.

To cite two examples in Tennessee, in 1940, a black attorney for the NAACP who was arguing for the admission of black students to the University of Tennessee “was struck, without provocation, by a white deputy sheriff in a courtroom in Tennessee,” according to the account of a black attorney from Alabama. A couple of years later, in 1942, a black attorney in Nashville was struck by a former court officer after a hearing in the Division II criminal courtroom. That lawyer had accused the Davidson County Jury Commission of “violating the law by excluding Negroes from jury service ‘solely on account of their color, race and African descent,’” according to a February 1942 article in The Tennessean.[ix]

Given the challenges, risks, and stakes involved, the practice of law in the South was more than just a job for many black attorneys. It was a mission.

Future Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Adolpho A. Birch Jr., was enlisted in this mission during his final year at Howard University School of Law in 1956. As he remembered in a 2005 interview, the dean of the school called him and several other top students into his office and “put a proposition to us.”

“He said, ‘Look, you all are students who are at the top of the list,’” Former Chief Justice Birch recalled. “’Howard has supported you and provided you with a scholarship for two and a half years, and we’re happy to do that. But we do think you should join the efforts to help places where you are needed, and we will arrange for you to meet somebody in these places we have selected.’”[x]

This call to service made sense to Former Chief Justice Birch, and he accepted. In 1958, Former Chief Justice Birch, born and raised in Washington, D.C., came to Nashville.

When he arrived he first worked with attorney and Napier Lawyers Association member J.F. McClellan downstairs from the office of fellow association member and famed civil rights attorney Z. Alexander Looby, who a little more than a decade before had made national news by securing the outright acquittal of 23 of 25 black defendants charged in relation to the 1946 Columbia, Tennessee “race riot.” In 1959, Former Chief Justice Birch changed positions to work with attorney Robert Lillard, a Napier Lawyers Association member and future two-time president of the National Bar Association who would become a lifelong friend and mentor to the new Nashvillian. Former Chief Justice Birch would later credit Lillard with influencing Governor Buford Ellington to appoint him as Tennessee’s first African American General Sessions Court Judge in 1969.[xi]

In an interview with federal judge and former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Martha Craig Daughtrey in his later years, Former Chief Justice Birch reflected on the challenges that he faced in his early years of legal practice.

“While we say generically I was practicing law, I didn’t get the opportunity much to do things that some other lawyers do like take depositions or to go to circuit court and try an accident case, because it just didn’t happen that way,” he said. “Practice was restricted because obviously only black people would patronize you…so you really didn’t have the drawing power of a lot of high-powered work, or a lot of high-energy lawyering. It was not really the same as a white practitioner would have experienced. It was a lot different, but at the same time it was educational, and… it allowed me to pay the bills.”[xii]

So close knit was Nashville’s population of 16 or so black lawyers at the time, that Former Chief Justice Birch was named president of the Napier Lawyers Association in 1961, just three years after he moved to town.[xiii] By that time, the prime era of the civil rights movement was in full swing, and the young lawyer had begun to take part in the voluntary work done by Lillard, Looby, and Avon Williams, also a Napier Lawyers Association member, defending students taking part in the Nashville sit-ins. Coverage of the major Nashville dailies during this era took occasional note of leadership changes in the group, members’ attendance at national or regional conferences, and the group’s endorsement of judicial nominees.[xiv]

In August 1963, The Tennessean wrote an article about Lillard’s support of closer ties between the ABA and the NBA.

“I think it is the most significant move that can be made,” he said. “I think if there is any one group of people in this country that can hasten the integration movement, it is the lawyers.”[xv]

While the ABA had voted to allow black members a couple of decades before, the Nashville Bar Association remained segregated. Members of the Napier Lawyers Association had attempted to join at various times over the years, but had been rejected. Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Richard Dinkins remembered that his former law partner, Avon Williams, always kept a check in his desk that Looby had written to the Nashville Bar Association for the cost of membership.

“His check had been returned, and he was not admitted,” Dinkins recalled.

The issue rankled Williams, who was featured in an April 1965 Tennessean article lambasting Governor Frank Clement for taking recommendations to two circuit court vacancies from the segregated Nashville Bar Association and Tennessee Bar Association.

“Presumably, you are aware of the notorious fact that both the Nashville Bar Association and the Tennessee Bar Association arbitrarily discriminate against all Negro members of the bar by excluding them from membership,” Williams wrote the governor.[xvi]

Segregation in the bar associations proved increasingly noxious to white attorneys, too.  As the 1960s progressed, some members of the Nashville Bar Association began advocating for desegregation.[xvii]

In spring 1965, Nashville Bar Association President J.G. Lackey Jr. appointed a committee to consider the issue, but the results were inconclusive. He was quoted in May saying, “I think a large number of the bar’s members would be opposed to a change in the current policy. Several lawyers have told me they would quit the association if Negroes were admitted.”[xviii] In the fall of that year, there was a debate on the subject held in front of Vanderbilt law students.[xix] Finally, in December, President Lackey put the matter to a vote. The result was 260 in favor of desegregating the association and 175 opposed.[xx]) In early January 1966, the Nashville Bar Association’s nine-man board of directors accepted the results and voted unanimously to allow African Americans to join.[xxi]

The Napier Lawyers Association went quiet for the next decade or so, until a new generation of young black attorneys decided to revive it. In 1978, these attorneys decided on the name the Napier-Looby Bar Association for the reconstituted group, choosing to add the name of the legal giant who had passed away several years prior to the original designation.

Judge Dinkins was one of the attorneys who helped restart the association. He said one of the galvanizing events for the reconstitution of the organization was the refusal of a Nashville judge to marry an interracial couple in 1978.

“There was some outcry among some folks in the black community about that, and to the best of my knowledge the [Judicial Standards Commission] didn’t do anything about it and the Nashville Bar Association didn’t do anything about it, and so black lawyers kind of met and said we’ve got to do something about this,” Judge Dinkins said.

The association pushed for an investigation of the judge, contending that his decision not to marry the interracial couple, as well as some of the terminology he occasionally used to describe black people, was indicative of a larger problem, “a racist attitude which cannot fail to affect his treatment of black attorneys who appear in his courtroom,” as association member Julian Blackshear put it in a newspaper article.[xxii]

In taking on entrenched racism, the young attorneys of the Napier-Looby Bar Association drew inspiration from their forebears. Many of the towering figures from the Napier Lawyers Association were still around, and the Napier-Looby Bar Association held annual banquets to honor such men as Robert Lillard, Coyness Ennix, and Avon Williams.

“Most of the young African American lawyers, the person we idolized was Avon Williams,” longtime Nashville attorney Robert Smith, who helped reorganize the Napier-Looby Bar Association, said. “Our whole goal was to be like Avon. You’ve seen the commercial, ‘I want to be like Mike.’ We wanted to be like Avon.”

Williams, of course, was the firebrand attorney and later state senator who was at the forefront of the civil rights struggle in Nashville in the 1950s and 1960s alongside his partner Z. Alexander Looby. He and the other lawyers of the civil rights era “were examples,” Smith continued. “That was the standard everyone wanted to live up to.”

While young lawyers in Nashville were getting involved with the Napier-Looby Bar Association, in Memphis another chapter of the National Bar Association drew attention.

The Ben F. Jones chapter of the National Bar Association was formed in 1966, but traces its roots back several years more, to 1960 when five black attorneys in the city began meeting “to gather legal knowledge and create a sense of community and camaraderie among the small number of African-American attorneys in Shelby County at that time.”[xxiii]

This initial group consisted of Jones, as well as James Estes, S.A. Wilbun, and Judge Benjamin Hooks, who just a few years later would receive his historic appointment as Tennessee’s first African American judge since Reconstruction. The group met at the home of H.T. Lockard, who later served for a quarter century as a criminal court judge in Memphis.

Judge Lockard had become the president of the local chapter of the NAACP in January 1955. He was joined in that work by the other men who would go on to found the Ben F. Jones chapter. Together this group of young attorneys formed “an energetic legal team” for the NAACP.[xxiv] Like the African American attorneys headed to Nashville in the same period, these men were eager to do what they could to right the wrongs of an unequal society.

“This group of intelligent, well-prepared blacks who were concerned about the progress of their people just happened to be coming back as a group at the same time to the same place with the same ideas, and that’s the beauty of it,” Vasco Smith, NAACP branch vice president and board member, remembered. “That’s where it really started.”[xxv]

They sensed an opportunity in 1955, one year after the seminal Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and shortly after another ruling, known as Brown II, that ordered segregated schools to admit minority students “with all deliberate speed. “

The year before, several African American students, among them two Korean War veterans, attempted to gain admission to Memphis State College (now the University of Memphis), but were denied. In 1955, Estes, Lockard, Hooks, and A.W. Willis filed suit against the Tennessee Board of Education in federal court. The board responded by issuing a plan for the “gradual desegregation” of higher education in the state over a period of several years. A federal judge in October 1955 signed off on this plan, despite calling the state’s system of segregation unconstitutional. Black students would not actually attend the school until 1959, after a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.[xxvi]

At the first meeting in 1960 of what would become the Ben F. Jones chapter of the National Bar Association, the five assembled lawyers “pledged never to validate the pervasive stereotype that African American professionals were in any way inferior.” They resolved to “ensure that their substantial legal acumen was properly reflected in the flawless appearance of their work product.”  The professional standards they set for themselves were so exacting that they even vowed “to more regularly clean and replace the worn parts on their typewriters, which were otherwise subject to unsightly smudging and illegible print.”[xxvii]

The group decided to formally organize as the Ben F. Jones chapter in 1966, the same year of Jones’s untimely death. A World War II veteran, Jones attended law school at Lincoln University in Missouri. After receiving his law license in 1949, Jones joined the law firm of his mentor, A.A. Latting. Lockard and Hooks also came to work alongside Latting.

All of the attorneys became involved in civil rights work in the ensuing years, with Jones especially playing “a notable role in the legal strategy sessions that took place in preparation for the criminal defense of those arrested in the lunch counter sit-ins at the downtown Walgreens at Madison and Main.”[xxviii]

In its first few years, the group of attorneys who would form the Ben F. Jones chapter kept adding to their number more and more lawyers who would go on to establish formidable careers. These included Russell Sugarmon (later a General Sessions judge), A.W. Willis, Arthur Bennett, James Swearingen, Ira Murphey, and Johnny Johnson.[xxix]

As time went on, the Ben F. Jones chapter would also welcome as members a lengthy list of jurists of staggering accomplishment. To name just a few, these include: Judge Odell Horton, the first black federal judge in Tennessee since Reconstruction; Justice George Brown, the first black judge on the Tennessee Supreme Court; Judge Floyd Peete, the first black chancellor in Shelby County; Judge Earnestine Dorse, the first black female judge in the City of Memphis and the second black female judge in the state; Judge Carolyn Wade Blackett, the first black female criminal court judge in the state; and Judge Rita L. Stotts, the first female black circuit court judge in Shelby County.[xxx]

With that roster of noteworthy names, it is no wonder that attorneys and judges who have joined the Ben F. Jones chapter over the years have gained access to a valuable network of friends and mentors.

[i] Smith, J. Clay, Jr. Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944 (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1993), 572, 573.

[ii] Ibid, 542, 543, 545.

[iii] Baldwin, Simeon E. “The Founding of the American Bar Association,” The American Bar Association Journal, 3 A.B.A. J. (1917): 695;Ortique, Revius O. “The National Bar Association—Not Just An Option!,” Judicature, Vol. 53, No. 9 (April-May 1970): 390.

[iv] Ortique, “The National Bar Association—Not Just An Option!,” 390.

[v] “History.” Napier-Looby Bar Association. Accessed February 18, 2020. http://napierlooby.com/history-2/; Smith, Emancipation, 362.

[vi] Clark, Herbert Leon. The public career of James Carroll Napier : businessman, politician, and crusader for racial justice, 1845-1940 (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1981), 39, 57, 106.

[vii] Houston, Charles H. “The Need for Negro Lawyers,” The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan., 1935): 51.

[viii] Smith, Emancipation, 9, 10.

[ix] Smith, Emancipation, 342; Setters, Jack. “Negro Lawyer Said Attacked.” The Nashville Tennessean. February 27, 1942.

[x] Birch, Adolpho A., Jr. “Oral History Interview With Adolpho A. Birch, Jr.” Interview by John Egerton. June 22, 2005. Transcript, Civil Rights Oral History Project, Nashville Public Library.

[xi] Birch, Adolpho A., Jr. Interview by Martha Craig Daughtrey. December 16, 2004. Video, Tennessee Bar Foundation Legal History Project, YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJdh-_q-pvM

[xii] Birch, Interview by Martha Craig Daughtrey.

[xiii] Churchwell, Robert. “Talk Cites Responsibility In Integration.” Nashville Banner. May 20, 1961.

[xiv] “City Councilman Heads Bar Group Delegation.” Nashville Banner. August 23, 1960; “Campbelle Heads Napier Bar Group.” Nashville Banner. March 4, 1963; “Negro Bar Unit Backs Edwards.” Tennessean. October 25, 1963

[xv] “Lillard Favors ABA Affiliation.” The Nashville Tennessean. August 10, 1963.

[xvi] “Clement Hit On Judge Plan.” The Nashville Tennessean, April 1, 1965.

[xvii] Squires, Jim. “Bar Votes Admittance of Negroes.” The Nashville Tennessean. December 10, 1965.

[xviii] Ritter, Frank. “Lawyers Asked: Admit Negroes To Bar Group?” The Nashville Tennessean. May 30, 1965.

[xix] Ritter, Frank. “Issue: Admission Of Negro Lawyers.” The Nashville Tennessean. October 3, 1965.

[xx] Squires, “Bar Votes Admittance of Negroes.”

[xxi] Looney, Doug. “Way Cleared for Negroes in Bar Group.” Nashville Banner. January 6, 1966.

[xxii] Loggins, Kirk. “Judge Summers’ Probe Sought.” The Nashville Tennessean. September 20, 1978.

[xxiii] “History.” National Bar Association Ben F. Jones Chapter. Accessed February 18, 2020, http://benfjones.com/about-us/history/

[xxiv] Green, Laurie Boush. Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 191.

[xxv] Gritter, Elizabeth. Memphis Voices: Oral Histories on Race Relations, Civil Rights, and Politics (New Albany, Indiana: Elizabeth Gritter Publishing, 2016), 32, https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/21193/Gritter_Memphis%20Voices.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[xxvi] Green, Battling the Plantation Mentality, 197.

[xxvii] “Who is Ben F. Jones?” National Bar Association Ben F. Jones Chapter. Accessed February 18, 2020, http://benfjones.com/about-us/who-is-ben-f-jones/

[xxix] “History.” National Bar Association Ben F. Jones Chapter. Accessed February 18, 2020, http://benfjones.com/about-us/history/

[xxx] “Milestones.” National Bar Association Ben F. Jones Chapter. Accessed February 18, 2020, http://benfjones.com/about-us/milestones/

The state's first African American bar association was named after James C. Napier, a Nashville attorney, who also served as Register of the United States Treasury under President William H. Taft. (Photo Credit: Nashville Public Library, Special Collections)

Nashville attorney Z. Alexander Looby was a leading voice in the city's civil rights movement, often working to defend students arrested for sit-in demonstrations in the 1960s. Here he is pictured in Columbia, Tennessee in 1946 where he won outright acquittals for 23 of 25 African American defendants charged in connection with a "race riot" that occurred in that city several months before. (Photo credit: Nashville Public Library, Special Collections)

In 1981, members of the newly reconstituted Napier-Looby Bar Association held an awards banquet to honor some of the group's leading historical members. Attorney Robert Lillard (left) and attorney Coyness Ennix (second from right) were the honorees. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Adolpho A. Birch, Jr. (right) spoke at the event, calling the two men "pathfinders, trailblazers and bridge builders," according to the Nashville Banner article that originally ran with the photo. Also pictured is Assistant District Attorney General Susan Short-Kelly. (Photo credit: Nashville Public Library, Special Collections)