New Generations, New Chapters Continue Historically African American Bar Association Legacy Into the 21st Century

February 28, 2020

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

Thirtieth Judicial District Chancellor JoeDae Jenkins is one of those who credits the Ben F. Jones chapter of the National Bar Association with making a positive difference in his life and career.

Chancellor Jenkins first joined the Ben F. Jones chapter in the early 1990s, when he was a young attorney in private practice.

“It was a good opportunity to meet other practitioners here in the City of Memphis, not knowing any of the lawyers that practiced locally,” Chancellor Jenkins said in a recent interview. “It was a good networking opportunity. And then as I learned more about the careers and accomplishments of the Ben F. Jones chapter founders, it made me want to become a part of the organization that championed the causes of people in need.”

As a member, Chancellor Jenkins had the opportunity to know some of those founders, including Judge Lockard, Judge Horton, and Judge Sugarmon, who he remembers as being an especially adept storyteller.

These Ben F. Jones members gave guidance to Chancellor Jenkins as he was navigating the early years of his professional life.

“It certainly helped to be able to talk to Russell Sugarmon and Odell Horton,” he said. “It helped to have Elijah Noel and Herman Morris to look over your work or to give you some criticism about how well you are performing in appearances and how to interact with professionalism and civility. It helps quite bit to hone your skills with professionals who have set high standards for themselves and who set the same standards for you.”

Chancellor Jenkins said that today chapter events like the annual Barristers Ball help to create those ties between prospective and established members.

The ball is “an opportunity to recruit people, to learn what people had been working on throughout the year, what challenges people had, what victories people had, and whether or not anyone is struggling who may need some help,” Chancellor Jenkins said.

While the Ben F. Jones chapter and the Napier-Looby Bar Association help to connect generations of lawyers and provide valuable networking opportunities, they also serve to focus members’ attention on goals that transcend just the legal sphere. As is apparent by reviewing the associations’ histories, they have always been keenly aware of the larger issues affecting society as a whole and particularly the African American community.

Chancellor Jenkins said that the Ben F. Jones chapter helped to focus his attention on these important issues.

“It helped me to always remember that the black community will need some additional support from black lawyers because of the social and economic disparities that exist, where many black people in the community cannot afford legal services,” he said. “We have to be open as lawyers to providing services at a reduced rate or for no rate at all. The organization helped to refresh and keep that before us as we go about our busy days trying to make a living and trying to make a difference in the community.”

For Judge Dinkins, one of the main reasons that bar associations like Napier-Looby are so important is that they help create conditions favorable for and advocate for the placement of African American attorneys in positions of power and influence in the legal world.

“There are some segments of the black community that still do not trust the majority of the legal community, particularly the criminal justice system,” Judge Dinkins said. “Just being there and hearing that and being able to respond as necessary...It’s a matter of having a presence where decisions are made, where policy is made, and having a voice. That’s very important.”

One of the places where African American representation is most needed, in Judge Dinkins’ view, is on the bench. The work that bar associations do to raise awareness for prospective black judges is critical.

“It’s very important to get involved in elections, particularly voting for judges,” he said.

Issues like these are partially responsible for why Judge Dinkins is so committed to the future of Napier-Looby.

He said that some question why Napier-Looby is still necessary since African Americans can now join the bar associations that once excluded them.

“And you know the thing that sort of bothers me about this is that nobody asks, ‘Why is there a Nashville Bar Association?’” he said. “It is a professional group of lawyers that do what they do. So when it is no longer relevant you won’t have to ask why it’s here, it won’t be here.”

In fact, the number of predominantly African American bar associations in Tennessee has actually increased significantly in the 21st century.

The expansion started in 2008, when a group of attorneys decided that there were issues relevant to the African American legal community that needed to be addressed on a statewide level. The result was the Tennessee Alliance for Black Lawyers (TABL), which was founded as a statewide affiliate of the National Bar Association.

Bone McAllester Norton Attorney and co-founder of TABL, Andrea Perry explained some of the reasons for the association’s establishment.

“TABL was created due to the need for a statewide organization that would serve to unite black lawyers throughout the State and provide a vehicle through which black lawyers could voice their opinions and engage in meaningful collective action on issues affecting black attorneys and the communities we serve,” Perry said.

“You had rural areas that didn’t have a local National Bar Association Chapter,” she continued. “Another reason it was started was to provide a professional and social network and support system for those lawyers.  And also to form a stronger voice in Tennessee politics and lawmaking. There’s strength in numbers. There was a desire for unity and solidarity and the pooling of financial, political, and intellectual resources.”

TABL supports itself by hosting an annual conference for lawyers that brings together African American attorneys to host seminars and discuss best practices in the profession. TABL stays active throughout the year as well, taking stands on a raft of issues, including pushing for the importance of diversity in the bar, on the Tennessee federal and state bench, and among the students and faculty of Tennessee’s law schools.

Since TABL was formed, new or revived chapters of the National Bar Association have popped up around the state. In Jackson, the Ballard Taylor chapter was formed. Knoxville saw the creation of the William Henry Hastie chapter. Chattanooga saw the revival of the S.L. Hutchins chapter.

TABL acts as a kind of umbrella organization for these chapters. Each member of each chapter is automatically a member of TABL. Each chapter also sends a certain number of delegates to statewide TABL meetings.

Over the years there have also been great strides taken to value the contributions of minority members in organizations like the Nashville Bar Association and the Tennessee Bar Association. The Nashville Bar Association’s Diversity Committee promotes opportunities for racial minorities through a number of different initiatives, including a high school intern program and the Damali Booker 1L Minority Job Fair. The association also holds conferences, including one it is presenting in partnership with the Napier-Looby Bar Association, The Ben F. Jones chapter, the Tennessee Alliance for Black Lawyers, the TBA’s Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity, the TBA’s Young Lawyers Division, and other organizations. The conference, Diversity 2020: Setting the Vision for Diversity Within the Legal Profession, will take place March 6 and 7 at Belmont University.

During the upcoming year, the Napier-Looby Bar Association is focusing on the theme of “Developing Lawyers for Leadership in the Bar, Bench, and Beyond,” Napier-Looby President Mary Beard said.

The inspiration for this focus came from Beard’s extensive career working for major corporations. She is currently Senior HR Counsel for HCA Healthcare and wanted to share the expertise she has gained in that and other positions with Nashville’s legal community.

“This year we are developing a leadership training program that will consist of facilitated training that will enhance the professional and personal development of our members,” Beard said. “The facilitated training will include strength-based leadership, unconscious bias, critical conversations, and characteristics of leaders training.”

The bar association also takes part in legal clinics and hosts various CLEs and networking events throughout the year. Popular annual events include the Barrister’s Banquet held by the Napier-Looby Bar Foundation and a recurring community service project undertaken in conjunction with juvenile court.

Beard sees the appeal of membership in the Napier-Looby Bar Association as wide-ranging and hopes that all members of Nashville’s legal community would consider joining.

“Although the Napier-Looby Bar Association is traditionally an association with mainly minority attorneys as members, all attorneys regardless of their race would greatly benefit from being a member,” she said. “Membership will assist you with building relationships and thinking strategically as you matriculate through your legal career. It is a vehicle to empower your professional growth to develop leadership skills.”

Ben F. Jones chapter President Shayla Nicole Purifoy said that the chapter will focus on a number of issues and programs over the course of the year, including community service, a mentorship program, a voter restoration project, and a reentry program.

Purifoy also wants to put a lot of energy into CLEs in 2020. The chapter’s first of the year, How Change Happens: A CLE in Celebration of Black History, was co-sponsored with the Memphis Bar Association and was held on February 25. It featured Dr. Beverly Bond speaking about the impact of the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments, and attorneys Van Turner and Bruce McMullen discussing the removal of Confederate memorials in Memphis.

A lot of planning this year is also going into preparation for the National Bar Association’s 2021 annual conference, which will be held in Memphis July 23-30, 2021.

Purifoy says that membership in the Ben F. Jones chapter is valuable for all sorts of different reasons, not least of which is entry into an experienced and caring community of professionals.

“It’s like a family,” she said. “You’re going to find out about job opportunities, and it’s the best way to network. You show up to a meeting and Judge Dorse, the first female African American city court judge, may be there. The networking opportunities are phenomenal. And you have access to a group of people who have been there before, who have gone through some of the struggles you might be experiencing, and can give you advice on how to get through those things. You have a unique opportunity to get involved in the community and help out with our CLEs and maybe get the opportunity to speak on a panel. The opportunities are pretty endless.”

Looking forward, there is much yet to be written about the histories of bar associations like Napier-Looby, the Ben F. Jones chapter, or the other National Bar Association chapters organized in Tennessee in recent years. While a lot of attention is paid to the “firsts” who claimed membership in the organizations—people like Former Chief Justice Adolpho A. Birch, Jr., Judge Benjamin Hooks, and Judge Bernice B. Donald—younger generations of lawyers in Tennessee just starting their careers have an opportunity to make history, too, in their own ways.

After Chief Justice Birch died, the Nashville Bar Journal published an article on his death written by one of his former clerks, Nancy Vincent. In it, she mentions something that Chief Justice Birch used to say.

“Justice Birch’s appointment to the General Sessions Court was one of many firsts for him as a black man in Nashville,” Vincent writes. “On many occasions, however, he told me that it wasn’t the firsts that really counted, he was looking for the seconds and thirds—then we can say that we have made significant strides in our judicial system.” [i]

When Z. Alexander Looby first stepped into a Putnam County courtroom in 1935, the Tennessean wrote a story with the headline, “Local Negro Lawyer is First of Race to Practice in Putnam.”[ii] Those kinds of stories rarely get written anymore, but that does not mean that progress has run its course. There are still plenty of seconds and thirds and fourths and fifths to go, plenty of roles to fill until it no longer makes sense to even affix a number in front of the title. And even then, the work will go on.

Tennessee’s historically African American bar associations are always looking for partners in that and other work to “improve the administration of justice.” Chancellor Jenkins said that all are welcome.

“I would encourage African American lawyers to join. I would also encourage white attorneys to join as well,” he said. “I think part of the problem-solving in our communities is that there is not enough collaboration between the lawyers in our communities. We have these silos that are set up that inhibit the transfer of thoughts and ideas which can address some of the lingering problems. It’s a work in progress. There have been some gains, and I look forward to many more gains.”

To get involved with some of the bar associations discussed in this article, check out the following links.

Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar AssociationEvents & Meeting CalendarInstagramLinkedInTwitter

Napier-Looby Bar AssociationFacebookTwitter

Tennessee Alliance for Black LawyersFacebookInstagramTwitter

[i] Vincent, Nancy. “A Man Who Inspired Many: A Tribute to Chief Justice A.A. Birch.” Nashville Bar Journal, Vol. 11, No. 9 (October 2011): 7.

[ii] “Local Negro Lawyer Is First Of Race To Practice In Putnam.” The Nashville Tennessean. January 23, 1936.

Officers, members, and board members of the Ben F. Jones chapter of the National Bar Association are pictured Oct. 19, 2019 following the chapter's annual meeting and election hosted by the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis. Standing from left are Zayid Saleem*, Faye Williams, Latrena Ingram* (past President), Harrison McIver, III, LaQuita Stokes* (BFJ NBA 2021 Convention Planning Committee Co-chair), Kamilah Turner, Lanell Anderson, Ashley Finch*, Gabrielle Lewis*, LaTanyia Walker*, Judge Gina Higgins (past President), Judicial Commissioner Damita Dandridge. In the front row are Quinton Thompson (2020 Vice President/ President Elect) and Judicial Commissioner Shayla Purifoy (2020 President). Not pictured are Edd Peyton* (immediate Past President), Judicial Commissioner Taylor Eskridge Bachelor*, Asia Diggs Meador*, Hon. (Retired) Earnestine Hunt Dorse*, Amber Floyd*, Mozella Ross*. (an asterisk * denotes either a current officer or board member).