Home  |  Background  |  Lawyers  |  Wiley Austin Branton  |  Contact
This page contains background information on Arkansas Black History and on The Practice of Law.

Arkansas Black History

African-American attorneys have played a significant role in Arkansas history since the end of the Civil War. Some were active in politics and civil rights and became quite prominent. Others toiled quietly on the more mundane legal affairs of clients. Between 1865 and 1950 almost 100 Black men were admitted to practice law in Arkansas.

Between 1860 and 1950, the African-American population of Arkansas averaged about 25 percent of the state’s total population. The percentage decreased after 1920. In 1950, African-Americans made up only 22 percent of the state’s population. The majority of this population was concentrated in the larger cities of Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Fort Smith, and Hot Springs, and in several counties comprising the “Black Belt” – Chicot, Crittenden, Desha, Jefferson, and Phillips.

During the Reconstruction period following the Civil War (1865-1891), Arkansas was considered a land of opportunity by many African-Americans. Reports of the day indicate that joint use of public facilities was common before 1891, at least in Little Rock. Most African-Americans who voted had joined the Republican Party, a tribute to Abraham Lincoln. The Republican Party controlled state politics after the Civil War and until 1874. Power switched hands after 1874, when the Democratic Party, largely made up of former Confederates who were re-enfranchised by the 1874 Arkansas Constitutional Convention, won most state offices.

Between 1865 and 1874, Arkansas had not instituted ‘black code’ laws restricting the rights of African-Americans, as had other Southern states. Even after 1874, when Southern Democrats regained legislative and gubernatorial control, the situation did not change immediately. For another 20 years, Democrats and Republicans shared power and ‘split’ county offices on the ballot. This ‘fusion’ system, as it was called, resulted in some African-Americans serving in various state offices until 1892, although loss of power led some county Republican organizations to militate for and ultimately exclude African-Americans from membership.

The 1890 elections saw political control pass completely to the Democratic Party, which maintained that control until the latter half of the 20th Century. Even after 1890, however, Republicans in federal office granted some appointments to African-Americans throughout a period of legally-enforced segregation.

After 1890, with little resistance from most whites, the Democrats began to pass anti-African-American legislation. The first, a ‘separate car’ bill segregating railway coaches, was enacted in 1891, despite the passionate opposition of the few African-Americans in the Arkansas legislature. A second step was the revision of election laws, ostensibly to prevent the election fraud that had been rampant since the Civil War. Many African-Americans voted for the change. The effect of these laws, which required an ability to read, was to disfranchise many African-Americans and poor whites. A constitutional amendment establishing a poll tax was passed in 1892. In 1903, a law segregating the state’s urban streetcar systems was passed.

By 1894, African-Americans had been completely eliminated from state political office except for a few minor posts. Between 1898 and 1906, the Democratic Party created a primary system for selecting candidates at local and state levels. At the same time, it began formally excluding African-Americans from party membership. Given the one-party nature of Arkansas politics by this time, the decision effectively disfranchised even more African-Americans. Between 1892 and 1902, the average voter turnout of African-Americans in Arkansas dropped by 75 percent, from 23,026 to 5,632.

With the “white primary,” the Democratic Party seemed to have done all it could with the law. Some segregation had existed even before the Democrats took power, when African-Americans themselves had created their own segregated churches soon after emancipation. State-supported schools were segregated under the 1868 Constitution. These, together with the new laws and exclusion from politics, made segregation the rule in Arkansas.

At the same time these laws were being enacted, physical violence against African-Americans was ever-present. Between 1882 and 1951, 226 lynchings took place in Arkansas. Other examples include: in 1898, violent efforts to banish African-Americans from the town of Lonoke; in 1903, the murder of 13 African-Americans, and not a single white in St. Charles; about the same time, the evacuation of African-Americans by white citizens from the town of Harrison. The Elaine “riot” of 1919 involved the death of five whites and an uncountable number of African-Americans. In 1927, a lynched man was publicly burned on West Ninth Street in Little Rock before a huge crowd of whites.

Despite the effect of the violence and legal restrictions, African-American churches and schools provided a foundation that allowed the African-American community to develop in many respects, giving its leaders the skills and opportunity to “present its case” and prevent many of the more onerous laws that appeared in other southern states. In addition, an African-American middle-class slowly was becoming established.

The Practice of Law

The practice of law was a “boom industry” after 1865. Nationally, the number of lawyers almost tripled between 1850 and 1870, from 23,939 to 64,137. Law was seen as a way for smart, ambitious men of all races and status to “get ahead” in life.

In 1865, licensing authority to practice law in Arkansas was governed by an 1836 statute. The state Supreme Court and the (then) six circuit courts each could certify applicants to practice law who were male, at least 21 years of age, and of “honest and good moral character,” and who had passed an oral examination. Some of the lawyers noted here were admitted by both the state Supreme Court and their local circuit court. Others were admitted by only one entity

In 1917, the Arkansas Supreme Court modified its rules to centralize admission solely through that court. The effect of this change was to eliminate, to some extent, the possibility of admission due to the friendly feelings of local judges and attorneys.

As far as can be determined, the African American lawyers admitted to practice prior to 1950 were as well educated as their white counterparts. As of 1860, there were few standards for admission to practice. The “mood” of the country and a large part of the profession before 1870 was to allow increased access to the profession. A legal education could be obtained in a number of ways. “Reading the law” or apprenticing were the most common routes to becoming a lawyer. Only nine of 39 jurisdictions in the United States had any formal apprenticeship requirements. Arkansas was not one of them.

After 1870, however, this attitude began to change, and pressure for increased admission standards began to grow. As formal requirements increased, many who wished to become lawyers could not find a practitioner willing to accept them as apprentices. Law school became an increasingly attractive alternative under the circumstances. Demand generated an increase in the number of available schools, with a wide range of quality. Both white and African-American aspirants to the bar became more likely to have obtained their legal education through law school courses, either on a full- or part-time basis or through correspondence lessons.

It was not until 1949 that the Arkansas Supreme Court adopted a rule requiring at least two years of undergraduate college education and graduation from an approved law school as a prerequisite for taking the bar examination. Graduates of law schools within the state were admitted to practice law without taking the bar examination until 1951.

The earliest African-Americans who applied for admission probably benefitted from the appointment of Republican judges and sympathetic white Republican lawyers during Reconstruction. Social barriers against African-Americans were less stringent in the larger towns, and African-American attorneys in Little Rock apparently were relatively pleased with the treatment accorded them within the legal profession. However, the quality of that treatment varied from town to town.

During at least the first half of the period between 1865 and 1950, most of Arkansas’ population was rural and poor, including the African-Americans, and it was difficult to succeed solely as a lawyer. Many early lawyers, both African-American and white, supplemented their income from legal work with other employment, e.g., farming or business, because few clients could pay significant fees.

African-American attorneys practiced primarily in the larger cities and in the “Black Belt,” where African-Americans were a substantial proportion of the population. Even there, however, only one percent of the African-American population could be considered middle class as of 1900. A number of the early African-American attorneys spent the major part of their energies on politics and supported themselves through political appointments. Depending on their political fortunes, a few moved in and out of law practice.

At the turn of the century, despite segregation, economic activity among African-Americans in Arkansas was rampant. In 1905, African-Americans were able to document the payment of taxes on $15,000,000 of real and personal property. This meant better times for some lawyers, and the evidence indicates that an increasing number devoted themselves to law practice for lengthy periods of time.

It was in 1900 that African-American lawyers first banded together in a professional association – The Wonder State Bar Association. In most places, though, as noted in 1902 by Mifflin Gibbs, African-American lawyers still were “confined to petty cases with corresponding fee” and “handicapped” in their efforts to build a reputation.

A 1934 study of African-American professionals by Carter Woodson found that things had not changed very much. Lawyers’ practices were primarily “office work ... real estate matters, the drawing up of papers for the sale and transfer of property and the handling of insurance, loans, and rents for his own people.” Other areas of legal work were “criminal law, then domestic relations, personal injuries, small claims, and matters growing out of the conduct and management of churches and fraternal associations.”

African-American lawyers represented other African-Americans. However, they also faced discrimination from their own communities. Those who could afford to pay lawyers understandably assumed that “justice” could be obtained more easily from a system in which judges and jurors were white if they used a white lawyer. Only one example was found of an African-American lawyer serving a white client, and in that case, the lawyer was appointed by the court and the client was indigent. It is unlikely that there were many more instances of this type of representation.

All in all, the men who persevered in the law were a remarkable group. It is fitting that their lives and example not be forgotten.

[The above was a summary derived from the article (EXTRA)Ordinary Men: African-American Lawyers and Civil Rights in Arkansas Before 1950,” 53 Arkansas L. Rev. 299 (2000).  If you would like to read the entire article, click on the title.]

^ return to top of page ^