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Richard A. Dawson was born in Virginia in 1848, but came to Arkansas from Illinois, where he was one of two Black men admitted to the newly-created Law Department of the University of Chicago in 1869, and the second Black man admitted to practice in Illinois, on July 8, 1870. He must have left Chicago soon thereafter, as he is reputed to have been admitted to practice in Arkansas by the state supreme court on December 16, 1870, after arriving in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), Arkansas. A minister's son, he obtained his earlier education at Oberlin College (Ohio).
Dawson attended an African-American men’s convention in South Carolina in 1871 as a representative of Arkansas. He was elected senator from Jefferson County to the Arkansas General Assembly in 1873 and an extra session in 1874. He was described as about 25 years of age, “copper-colored man, low of stature, [and] a good talker, . . .” Also in 1873, Dawson was one of four plaintiffs in a successful lawsuit handled by Mifflin Gibbs and Lloyd Wheeler against a saloonkeeper for violating the Civil Rights Act of 1866 by refusing to serve them. He served as clerk of the Jefferson County Court during 1874-76 and again represented Jefferson County in the Arkansas Assembly for the 1879 session.
He returned to Chicago to speak at a gathering celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation in 1891 and again in 1892, when he represented Arkansas at a meeting of "Colored Republicans" from various states to protest lynchings and other discriminatory treatment of Blacks. That meeting drafted a resolution to be presented at the Republican convention in Minneapolis a short time later.
By 1896, Dawson was back in Chicago full-time, and active in Republican politics. By 1900, disillusioned with that party, he had become an active Democrat. In 1906, The Broad Ax newspaper noted that "Judge Richard A. Dawson, who was one of the old time Afro-American Democrats, and was well known among all the Politicians, passed away Saturday morning at 2939 Armour ave., and on Monday, his remains were laid to rest in Union Ridge Cemetery." No information is known about the title "Judge" that is applied to him in several newspaper stories. It may have been a tribute to his age and stature among the community.
Sources: Judith Kilpatrick, "(EXTRA)Ordinary Men: African-American Lawyers and Civil Rights in Arkansas Before 1950," 53 Ark. Law Rev. 299, 303 n7, 304, 307, 325-26, 330, 337, 345 (2000); Eric Foner, Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction 58 (1993); Blake J. Wintory, African-American Legislators in the Arkansas General Assembly, 1868-1893, LXV Ark. Hist. Q. 385 (Wint 2006); Arkansas Gazette, 11/14/1872; Arkansas Gazette, February 1 and 2, 1873; The following citations were provided by the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission (John A. Lupton, Executive Director/Director of History Programs): 2 Chicago Legal News 344, 7/23/1870, "The Negro Ahead of the Woman;" Chicago Daily Tribune, 9/1/1891, p. 9; Chicago Daily Tribune, 6/5/1892, p. 10; Chicago Daily Tribune, 7/19/1896, p. 4; The Broad Ax, Vol. V, 9/1/1900, p. 1, CHIPS column; The Broad Ax, 2/17/1906, "CHIPS" column; The Broad Ax, 2/17/1906, "CHIPS" column;
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