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!
Horatio Nelson Rankin is admitted to the bar in Memphis (earliest documented African American admitted to any bar in Tennessee).
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).
Thomas Frank Cassels becomes the first black Attorney General Pro Tem of Shelby County Criminal Court.
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).
Lutie Lytle admitted (first black female attorney in Tennessee).
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).
Benjamin Booth is one of the highest paid lawyers in Tennessee.
Ben F. Jones is born (founder, namesake).
H.T. Lockard is born (founder).
- S.A. Wilbun is born (founder).
Benjamin Hooks is born (founder). National Bar Association is founded in Des Moines, Iowa.
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).
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.
James F. Estes organizes the first black voter registration drive to be held in rural Tennessee (Fayette County).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Founder J.F. Estes dies.
A.A. Latting is elected as the first black Chairman of the Civil Service Commission.
A.W. Willis becomes the first black Memphis mayoral candidate (unsuccessful).
Ben Hooks is appointed as the first black member of Federal Communications Commission.
S.A. Wilbun becomes first black City Court Judge. Otis Higgs becomes the first black faculty member at the University of Memphis law school.
Arthur T. Bennett becomes the first black judge appointed to General Sessions Court.
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).
S.A. Wilbun becomes the first black Circuit Court Judge.
Ural B. Adams becomes the first black Shelby County Public Defender.
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).
Bernice Donald becomes the first black female US Bankruptcy Court Judge in the nation.
Otis Higgs is appointed by the City Commission as the first black Shelby County Sheriff.
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).
S.A. Wilbun dies.
Carolyn Wade Blackett becomes the first female Criminal Court judge in Shelby County and the first black female Criminal Court judge in Tennessee.
Bernice Donald becomes the first black female District Court Judge in Tennessee.
Herman Morris is named the first black President of MLGW.
Rita L. Stotts becomes the first black female Circuit Court judge.
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.
AC Wharton is elected as the first black Shelby County Mayor).
Karen D. Webster is elected as the first Black and first female Shelby County Probate Judge.
Federal Courthouse in Memphis is renamed “Clifford Davis / Odell Horton Federal Building”
Ben Hooks is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Judge Bernice Donald sworn to Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals