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Joseph Robert (J.R.) Booker was born in Helena (Phillips County), Arkansas, on September 19, 1893, and admitted to practice before the state supreme court on June 30, 1919. He was one of eight children born to Joseph A. Booker, a civil rights activist minister and educator, and Mary J. (Carver) Booker. Booker received a B.A. from Arkansas Baptist College in 1914, and obtained his legal education at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois), graduating in 1917. He then returned to Little Rock (Pulaski County), Arkansas, to practice law.
During World War I, Booker served in the U.S. Army during 1918-19. He also acted as Assistant Director of the War Finance Committee and was a member of the Legal Advisory Board of the State Military Affairs Committee. He was an active Republican and engaged in opposing the party’s efforts to rid itself of Black participation. When the Republicans held their 1920 state convention in a segregated hotel, Booker, Scipio Jones, J.A. Hibbler, W.A. Singfield, W.L. Purifoy, and others attended and refused to leave until the lights were turned off. They then held their own separate convention. Booker worked with Scipio Jones in defending Black defendants arrested following the “race riots” near Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919. He was an early member of the first Arkansas branch of the NAACP in Little Rock in 1924.
In 1930, along with his brother, William A. Booker, practicing as Booker & Booker, he joined with Scipio Jones and J.A. Hibbler in suing the Little Rock Democratic Central Committee on behalf of the Arkansas Negro Democratic Association for the right to vote in Democratic primaries. In 1943, Booker was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. Booker’s name appears as attorney of record in eight cases appealed to the state supreme court.
Booker, Scipio Jones, J.A. Hibbler, Myles Hibbler, and the NAACP (through attorney Thurgood Marshall) successfully sued the Little Rock School District in 1942 on behalf of a Black teacher for equal pay with white teachers. In March 1946, Booker contacted the University of Arkansas School of Law on behalf of a young Black man who wanted to register and attend. At that time, the school did not accept Black students and he was unsuccessful. (That situation changed in 1948, when the first Black law student was registered at the university.) Booker was a local “cooperating attorney” with the NAACP in at least five other cases during the 1950s.
In 1949-50, he was elected president of the National Bar Association, a national Black lawyers group. At various times, Booker also was a member of the Southwest Bar Association, the Wonder State Bar Association (a Black lawyers organization), and the American Judicature Society. Booker married Willa M. Jones in 1927. They had a son, Joseph R., Jr. J.R. Booker, Sr. died on July 31, 1960.
Sources: Judith Kilpatrick, “(EXTRA)Ordinary Men: African-American Lawyers and Civil Rights in Arkansas Before 1950,” 53 Ark. Law Rev. 299, 347 n351, 351 n378, 367 n509, 368 n509, 370, 371, 375, 380, 384, 386, 387, 388, 389, 390, 391 (2000); Green Polonius Hamilton, Beacon Lights of the Race 173 (1911); Who’s Who in Colored America 41 (1950); Sadie Tanner M. Alexander, Who’s Who Among Negro Lawyers 6 (1945); Papers of the NAACP, Part 12, Reel 4, pp. 851-52 (Pledges of Little Rock Citizens Made to Dr. Robert Bagnall, 10/2-3/1924), 897-98 (letter dtd 4/27/1925 from Director of Branches to Attorney J.R. Booker), 963-64 (Membership Report dtd 10/12/1926); Papers of the NAACP, Part II, B210, Voting, Arkansas 1943-47 (letter dtd 9/4/1946 from J.R. Booker to Charles H. Houston, Chair, National Legal Committee, NAACP and letter dtd 9/6/1946 from Charles H. Houston to J.R. Booker); African American Biographical Database, Profile, http://abd.chadwyck.com/bbidx/full_rec (last visited 6/9/1999);
Copyright ©2003 Judith Kilpatrick, all rights reserved