African-American Lawyers in Jacksonville Before the Colored Lawyers Association
The first Black lawyer admitted to practice in Jacksonville was Joseph E. Lee. Admitted in 1873, Mr. Lee was also the first Black lawyer in Florida to practice with an actual law degree. He also served in the Florida legislature and was a candidate for lieutenant governor. John Wallace and William F. Thompson were also admitted in 1873 and practiced in Jacksonville from time to time.
According to Florida's First Black Lawyers 1869-1979, which is a publication of the Virgil Hawkins Florida Chapter National Bar Association, John H. Ballou and Isaac Lawrence Purcell, admitted to practice in Florida in 1882 and 1891, respectively, also practiced in Jacksonville. Mr. Ballou had been a member of the Rhode Island Bar prior to coming to Jacksonville. While practicing, he taught physics and math at Cookman Institute. He relocated to Birmingham, Alabama in 1892. Mr. Purcell often represented clients in connection with civil rights matters. He may have been best known for successfully enjoining the Duval County Sheriff from excluding African-Americans from serving on juries.
In 1898, James Weldon Johnson was admitted to practice in Jacksonville. Although he faced a large degree of racism when he was being considered for admission, author J. Clay Smith, Jr. says that Mr. Johnson's "knowledge of the law and dogged determination had won out over racism."
Judson Douglas Wetmore was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1899. He and James Weldon Johnson formed a law firm in Jacksonville. After Mr. Johnson left Jacksonville in 1901, Mr. Wetmore continued the practice and was eventually elected to the Jacksonville City Council before he left to practice law in New York. He was co-counsel with Isaac Lawrence Purcell and Simuel Decatur McGill in several landmark civil rights decisions before the Florida Supreme Court.
According to J. Clay Smith, Jr. in Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer 1844-1944, one of the most prolific Black attorneys in the country a century ago was Simuel Decatur McGill. A 1908 graduate of Boston University School of Law, Mr. McGill appeared in more cases before a state supreme court than any other Black lawyer during the period 1844-1944.
Mr. McGill's brother, Nathan Kellog McGill, graduated from Boston University School of Law in 1912 and practiced with his brother in Jacksonville. Nathan McGill was both a lawyer and a journalist, having published the Florida Sentinel from 1916-1920. By this time, white supremacists had fully retaken control over Jacksonville's political scene, and the doors to Blacks serving in government had been firmly shut. In 1925, Nathan McGill left Jacksonville for Chicago and was soon appointed Assistant State's Attorney for Cook County, Illinois.
Robert Crawford also practiced in Jacksonville, after having been admitted in 1918. Following Mr. Crawford's admission, there is no record of any other African-American attorney in Jacksonville having been admitted to practice in Florida for 26 years.
Simuel McGill continued to practice in Jacksonville, and the McGill and McGill law firm became one of the most prominent firms in the country. According to a picture in the NAACP's publication, The Crisis, in January 1942, McGill and McGill had a law library that was said to have been one of the most complete in the entire State of Florida with more than 2000 books. Interestingly, in that same picture showing the law library, were Mr. McGill along with his assistants, including a young attorney named William S. Robinson and a young clerk named Releford McGriff, who was the nephew of the McGill brothers.
Daniel Webster Perkins, who had moved to Jacksonville from the Tampa area, wrote an article in that same issue of The Crisis from 1942 summarizing and evaluating the Black professional in Jacksonville at the time. He included the following lawyers as then being in practice in Jacksonville: J. Leonard Lewis, S. D. McGill, J. P. Muse, D. W. Perkins, R.R. Robinson and Wm. S. Robinson.
At the time of Mr. Perkins' article, Mr. Griff was not yet a member of the Florida Bar. However, he was admitted in 1944 as the first lawyer in Jacksonville to be admitted since 1918. He achieved a great deal of national notoriety in 1952 and succeeding years for his representation of Ruby McCollum, the wealthy Black woman in Live Oak who shot and killed the popular white physician, and her paramour, Dr. C. Leroy Adams. Mrs. McCollum was the first African-American woman to testify in court in her own defense against a white man who had exercised his "paramour rights," which allowed a white man to take a Black woman as his concubine and force her to have his children, whether or not the woman was married. This same unwritten law of the post Civil War South called "paramour rights" had been studied extensively by Florida's Zora Neale Hurston in the 1930s.