Contributions of Missouri’s Black lawyers to securing equal justice: The formative years
Part 1 of 4
Editor's note: In 1989, Saint Louis University School of Law Assistant Professor Leland Ware republished this article, examining the history of Black lawyers in Missouri during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the Journal of The Missouri Bar. The author is now the Louis J. Redding Chair and Professor for the Study of Law and Public Policy at the University of Delaware's School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. In recognition of February's celebration of Black History Month, we are pleased to republish this article online.
Black attorneys have been active in Missouri for more than a century. However, because the American and local bar associations originally denied membership to Black attorneys, the Mound City Bar Association was established in St. Louis in 1922. After a national organization of Black attorneys was organized in 1926, the Mound City Bar Association became an affiliate chapter of that organization. During the same period, Black attorneys led the NAACP's efforts to eliminate racial discrimination.
The NAACP's legal campaign consisted of a carefully planned litigation strategy involving hundreds of cases over several decades. These cases eventually led to several significant Supreme Court victories and ultimately to the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s. Two of the most important cases that were involved in that process, Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada1 and Shelley v. Kraemer,2 arose in Missouri and were handled by Black attorneys from St. Louis. Gaines was an important victory in the effort to eliminate racially segregated schools and Shelley was a major step toward the elimination of discrimination in housing.
This article will examine the history of Black lawyers in Missouri during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It will describe the development of the Mound City Bar Association and explain the relationship of that organization to the National Bar Association. This article will also analyze the development of the NAACP's legal strategy against racial discrimination. And, focusing primarily on the Gaines and Shelley cases, this article will discuss the contributions of Missouri lawyers to that effort.
The Formative Years: 1877-1930
St. Louis' first Black attorney was probably Albert Burgess. Mr. Burgess commenced his practice in 1877 and was active for more than 50 years until his death in 1933. He was an honor graduate of the University of Michigan and served as counselor to the City of Carondelet's Police Court. Burgess was also a vestryman in the All Saints Episcopal Church.3 Another Black attorney, Hutchings Inge, moved to St. Louis from Virginia. Inge received an undergraduate degree from Oberlin College and after completing a law course settled in St. Louis in the mid-1880s.
In 1887, Walter Moran Farmer became the first Black student to be admitted to Washington University's Law School. Farmer endured a hostile atmosphere and attempts were made to force him to leave. Despite these difficulties, Farmer was able to complete his studies in 1889. The law school's graduation ceremonies were delayed that year when the students refused to march with Farmer in the graduation procession. This impasse was finally resolved when the dean of the law school accompanied Farmer down the aisle. Farmer practiced for a period in St. Louis but he eventually moved to Chicago.
By 1921, the number of Black lawyers practicing in St. Louis was sufficient to support the establishment of a professional association. The decision to formally organize is reflected in the following notice which appeared in the St. Louis Argus on December 23, 1921, and on January 6, 1922:
Believing that a closer relationship of the members of the Bar will redound to the benefit of the race and the profession, and with a view of bringing about this much needed result, the undersigned attorneys hereby cordially invite all Negro members of the bar to meet at Pythian Hall, 3137 Pine Street on January 7, 1922 at 8:00 p.m. for the purpose of perfecting a Bar Association. Geo. L. Vaughn, Daniel W. Bowles, Homer G. Phillips, S.E. Garner, Geo. B. Jones, WR. Hill, Jos. A. Smith, Robert N. Owens, Emanuel Williams, N.A. Mitchell. E.H. Taylor, Hutchings Inge, J.H. Roberts and Freeman L. Martin.4
The Argus reported later that the attorneys had organized the St. Louis Negro Bar Association and elected George L. Vaughn, President; Robert Owens, Vice-President; Albert Burgess, Treasurer; and George R. Jones, Secretary.5
Since the American Bar Association refused to admit Black lawyers, a national organization of Black attorneys, the National Bar Association, was organized in 1926.6 The Mound City Bar Association (the Bar Association changed its name in the mid-1920's) later joined the National Bar Association, as an affiliate chapter. Black attorneys from St. Louis served in prominent roles in the national organization. The third president of the National Bar Association, Homer G. Phillips, was elected in 1927. Another St. Louisan, Sidney Redmond, served as the National Bar Association's president from 1939 to 1941. The National Bar Association held its 26thth annual meeting in St. Louis in August of 1951. During that convention, a St. Louis attorney, Scovel Richardson, was elected president. The National Bar Journal was edited by a St. Louisan, Freeman L. Martin.
During the 1920's, Homer Phillips was one of the most active and influential lawyers in St. Louis. He was born in Sedalia, Missouri, on April 1, 1880. His father was a Methodist minister. Phillips graduated from Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. After settling in St. Louis, Phillips became active in the city's political arena and was reputed to have a large following among Black voters.7 During his lifetime, Phillips fought for equal accommodations for Black citizens on railroad trains, the inclusion of Black students in appointments to West Point, and the improvement of the condition of Black farmers. The Homer Phillips Hospital, which was named in honor of Phillips, served the Black citizens of St. Louis until it was closed in the early 1980's.
The peculiar circumstances of Philips' death provide one of the most mysterious episodes in the history of Black lawyers in St. Louis. On June 18, 1931, the 51-year-old Phillips left his home at 1121 Aubert Avenue, and proceeded south on Aubert to Delmar Boulevard, where he apparently intended to take a streetcar to his office at 23 N. Jefferson. Near the intersection of Delmar and Aubert, Phillips stopped to purchase a newspaper. After selecting a newspaper, Phillips sat on the window-ledge of a business, opened his newspaper and waited for the streetcar. The events which followed were described by a witness who gave the following account to the police:
Phillips was sitting on a low window ledge alongside the Rubicam Business School on the east side of Aubert Avenue reading a newspaper. Suddenly two Negroes appeared. One had an automatic pistol in his hand. He walked up to Phillips and said something. Phillips lowered his paper and looked up. The Negro struck Phillips in the jaw and then opened fire. Phillips swung around just as the Negro started shooting. Six shots were fired. The two assassins ran north on the east side of Aubert to an alley, east in the alley and then north in a bisecting alley, where I lost sight of them.8
Phillips' death was a great loss to the St. Louis community. Reports of his death appeared on the front pages of all three of the city's newspapers. Two Black youths were arrested and tried for the murder, but were ultimately acquitted. The murder of Homer Phillips remains officially unsolved.