This timeline was compiled with the generous input of several members of the local African American legal community. It features many of the historical milestones achieved by black lawyers in the Memphis area dating back to the Mid-South’s very first African American bar admittee. If you know of additional firsts that deserve mention on this timeline, please let us know!

  • 1868
    Horatio Nelson Rankin is admitted to the bar in Memphis (earliest documented African American admitted to any bar in Tennessee).
  • 1875
    Thomas Frank Cassels moves to Memphis and practices law here. Josiah T. Settle is admitted to the bar (later becomes first black Shelby County prosecutor).
  • 1880s
    Thomas Frank Cassels becomes the first black Attorney General Pro Tem of Shelby County Criminal Court.
  • 1886
    Benjamin Franklin Booth admitted to practice in Tennessee (by 1900, it is said that no client of his ever suffered capital punishment – a phenomenal feat for an attorney representing black criminal defendants).
  • 1897
    Lutie Lytle admitted (first black female attorney in Tennessee).
  • 1905
    Josiah Settle and Benjamin Booth unsuccessfully challenge the separate-but-equal common carrier law before the Tennessee Supreme Court. A.A. Latting is born (mentor to our five founders).
  • 1908
    Benjamin Booth is one of the highest paid lawyers in Tennessee.
  • 1919
    Ben F. Jones is born (founder, namesake).
  • 1920
    H.T. Lockard is born (founder).
  • 1924
  • S.A. Wilbun is born (founder).
  • 1925
    Benjamin Hooks is born (founder). National Bar Association is founded in Des Moines, Iowa.
  • 1950s
    Benjamin Hooks, Russell Sugarmon, H.T. Lockard, Ira Murphy, and others organized the first black voter registration drives in west Tennessee (concentrated in urban areas, eventually spread across the state).
  • 1954
    Brown v Board of Education (one of the cases that merged with this landmark case was Northcross v. Memphis Board of Education, a local school desegregation case filed and litigated by Russell B. Sugarmon, Jr.; Benjamin Hooks; A.W. Willis; and others). A.W. Willis becomes the first black named to the Board of the Memphis Transit Authority.
  • 1959
    James F. Estes organizes the first black voter registration drive to be held in rural Tennessee (Fayette County).
  • 1960s
    Russell B. Sugarmon, Ben Hooks, Ben F. Jones, James Estes, and A.W. Willis are among several black lawyers litigating a series of cases involving discrimination in public accommodations.
  • 1963
    Lucius E. Burch, Jr. of Burch, Porter, & Johnson writes a formal letter to the Memphis Bar Association urging the removal of the term “white” from the MBA’s admission requirements, describing this condition as “irrational and unfair.” He proposed amendment was voted down several times before finally passing.
  • 1964
    S.A. Wilbun becomes the first black Assistant City Attorney in Memphis. H.T. Lockard wins seat on Shelby County Quarterly Court (now Shelby County Commission). A.W. Willis is elected as the first black state legislator since Reconstruction.
  • 1965
    Benjamin Hooks becomes the first black judge (of any court of record) in Tennessee (appointed to Division 4 of Shelby County Criminal Court)
    Arthur T. Bennett becomes the first black prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office (first black prosecutor in the entire state since Reconstruction).
  • 1966
    Ben F. Jones dies. Ben F. Jones Chapter is founded in Memphis. Kenneth Cox becomes the first black student to graduate from the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law (James Swearengen would be the second, graduating in 1967). Motion finally passed among members of the Memphis Bar Association to amend the by-laws to allow black to join. A.A. Latting was among the very first black members of the MBA. First integrated law firm in Memphis is formed: Ratner, Sugarmon, & Lucas.
  • 1967
    Founder J.F. Estes dies.
  • 1970
    A.A. Latting is elected as the first black Chairman of the Civil Service Commission.
  • 1971
    A.W. Willis becomes the first black Memphis mayoral candidate (unsuccessful).
  • 1972
    Ben Hooks is appointed as the first black member of Federal Communications Commission.
  • 1973
    S.A. Wilbun becomes first black City Court Judge. Otis Higgs becomes the first black faculty member at the University of Memphis law school.
  • 1975
    Arthur T. Bennett becomes the first black judge appointed to General Sessions Court.
  • 1976
    Anthony “Tony” Johnson leaves Ratner, Sugarmon, & Lucas for an appointment to the City Court bench. At that time, Johnson was the youngest black judge in the nation (age 29).
  • 1978
    S.A. Wilbun becomes the first black Circuit Court Judge.
  • 1979
    Ural B. Adams becomes the first black Shelby County Public Defender.
  • 1980
    George Brown, Jr. (a Memphian) becomes the first black Tennessee Supreme Court Justice. Odell Horton, Sr. is appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee (first black federal judge appointed in Tennessee since Reconstruction).
  • 1988
    Bernice Donald becomes the first black female US Bankruptcy Court Judge in the nation.
  • 1990
    Otis Higgs is appointed by the City Commission as the first black Shelby County Sheriff.
  • 1990
    Floyd Peete is elected as the first black Chancellor of Shelby County Chancery Court. Judge Earnestine Dorse elected first black female judge in the City of Memphis (second black female judge in the state).
  • 1991
    S.A. Wilbun dies.
  • 1994
    Carolyn Wade Blackett becomes the first female Criminal Court judge in Shelby County and the first black female Criminal Court judge in Tennessee.
  • 1995
    Bernice Donald becomes the first black female District Court Judge in Tennessee.
  • 1997
    Herman Morris is named the first black President of MLGW.
  • 2000
    Rita L. Stotts becomes the first black female Circuit Court judge.
  • 2001
    Veronica F. Coleman appointed as the first African American (and first female) United States Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee. New main library opens its doors and is dubbed the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.
  • 2002
    AC Wharton is elected as the first black Shelby County Mayor).
  • 2006
    Karen D. Webster is elected as the first Black and first female Shelby County Probate Judge.
  • 2007
    Federal Courthouse in Memphis is renamed “Clifford Davis / Odell Horton Federal Building”
    Ben Hooks is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • 2011
    Judge Bernice Donald sworn to Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals