An Advocate for Justice
John N. Johnson was Texas' first civil rights lawyer.
Written by John G. Browning
He railed against the deaths of African Americans in the custody of white law enforcement, the exclusion of Blacks from jury service, the disparate treatment of incarcerated African Americans, and against unequal educational opportunity. He fought for entry into a legal profession that lacked diversity, and he filed civil rights lawsuits. But John N. Johnson, who would have felt at home in the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, is all the more remarkable because he did all of this in 1880s Texas—a time and place when such activities could have easily resulted in death at the hands of a lynch mob. Johnson was Austin’s first African American attorney and the first person of color admitted to practice before the Texas Supreme Court. He became not only a lawyer, but also a doctor, an educator, and a newspaper editor. Yet despite the trails Johnson blazed and the barriers he overcame, today there are no monuments or markers commemorating his life and no streets or buildings bearing his name.
John N. Johnson was born in Maryland in 1853, according to the 1880 U.S. Census records of Limestone County, Texas. It is not clear whether he was born free or enslaved, but his early life was a hard one. Johnson’s father, a preacher, was murdered in Gaithersburg, Maryland, sometime in the 1860s,1 and his mother supported herself and her son working as a laundress in Washington, D.C.’s Ward 1. Despite a disadvantaged upbringing, Johnson completed high school, and by 1873 was pursuing a college education, likely with the assistance of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. By December 1876, Johnson was married and teaching in the Washington, D.C., area. By 1879, if not earlier, “Professor Johnson’s” work as a schoolteacher brought him to Texas, and he held a series of teaching positions in Calvert (Robertson County), Mexia (Limestone County), Hearne (Robertson County), and Bryan (Brazos County). While in Hearne, Johnson even became involved with the “Exoduster” movement, a mass migration of African Americans to Kansas from Southern states like Texas in reaction to the racial violence and forced removal of Blacks from their property that accompanied the end of Reconstruction.
But Johnson and his family decided to remain in Texas, and by fall 1880, he was one of two teachers at Bryan’s “colored school.”2 Johnson was a tireless advocate of educational opportunity for the African American community, calling lack of education “the nursery of crime, furnishing our jails and penitentiaries with inmates, instead of being intelligent citizens, developing the vast resources of the great South."3
In theory, the relatively low standards of the time for admission to the Texas Bar shouldn’t have presented much of an obstacle. Until the passage of a bar licensing statute in 1891 and the adoption of a bar exam in 1903, a candidate for admission simply had to be at least 21 years old, a resident of Texas for at least one year, be of “good reputation for moral character and honest and honorable deportment,” and successfully pass an oral examination by a committee of local lawyers appointed by the area’s district judge.4 Admission to the Texas Bar during this time was so “extraordinarily easy,” as one historian has described it, that even notorious outlaw and convicted murderer John Wesley Hardin was admitted to the Texas Bar—after spending more than a decade in prison for murder.5 But in reality, few African Americans succeeded in becoming lawyers in Texas; by 1890, there were only a dozen statewide.6
Above: Austin attorney John N. Johnson was the first African American to have been enrolled to practice before the state’s highest court. Photo courtesy of the Archives of the Supreme Court of Texas.
Black lawyers at the time risked racial violence, as well as more benign forms of racism. They were frequently referred to by white counsel and judges by their first names or as “boy,” and newspapers delighted in racist depictions of African American lawyers, ridiculing their diction and alleged ignorance.7 And of course, gaining entry into the profession by convincing a local bar committee of one’s qualifications often proved daunting. Johnson was rejected by local committees in Brazos County in the fall of 1881 and again in the spring of 1882.8 As one historian observed, “If obstacles to entry into the profession were not absolutely insurmountable for African Americans, they were formidable enough that only the smallest fraction of blacks could overcome them. Very few considered the possibility of becoming lawyers even midway into the twentieth centry."9
By the fall of 1882, Johnson moved to Austin for yet another teaching job, and while there, proved that the third time was the charm in gaining his law license in October. On February 9, 1883, Johnson became the first African American admitted to practice before the Texas Supreme Court.10 That same year, he became editor of The Austin Citizen, a newspaper aimed at the capitol’s Black community. Johnson also began championing the community’s causes. After Sam White, an African American man who had just begun a five-year penitentiary sentence, was killed by a white guard while on a convict labor detail at a Burleson County plantation, Johnson pressed the attorney general to launch an investigation after the Burleson County attorney refused to do so. Johnson made an impassioned plea, writing, “I have seen colored convicts beaten to death, and colored citizens who witnessed the scene were afraid to testify, from the fact that the guards are generally desperate men and are feared, and white citizens, not being much interested and not often around, do not testify.”11 Johnson’s persistence led to an investigation of the incident by the state inspector of prisons, who concluded the killing of the unarmed inmate was "inavoidable."
In August 1883, Johnson moved on to his biggest challenge yet: the filing of at least six civil rights lawsuits against the Houston and Texas Central Railway for charging African American passengers full price for accommodations but only permitting them to ride in second class, racially restricted cars.12 In one of the suits, Johnson sought the unheard of sum of $50,000 in damages. White newspapers assailed both the lawsuits and Johnson himself, accusing “the colored attorney at Austin” of “agitations” that “show Texas in the light of a depravity not really existing.”13 At first, the lawsuits did not go well, at least in the courtroom. The first two trials ended in defense verdicts, with the losing plaintiffs ordered to pay costs and one plaintiff—a reverend—fined and jailed for “forcing his way” into a railroad car containing “white ladies.” But outside the courtroom, Johnson achieved some measure of success. After a settlement conference with Houston and Texas Central Railway Vice President Jedidiah Waldo, Johnson agreed to dismiss all cases and discourage the filing of new ones while the railway in return agreed to put on “separate and exclusive cars, with equal accommodations, for its colored patrons within three months.”14
During the fall of 1883, Johnson turned his attention to the defense of Perry Cavitt, an African American man convicted in Brazos County of murder for shooting and killing a white farmer who had earlier that day fired on Cavitt and a companion, wounding Cavitt’s friend.15 At trial, Johnson objected to the fact that no African American jurors had been empaneled, arguing more than a century before Batson v. Kentucky that excluding Blacks from the jury violated Cavitt’s rights under the 14th Amendment. The appellate court rejected Johnson’s argument, saying Cavitt had been “fairly and impartially tried; and justly convicted” of the “cruel and dastardly murder.”16 Cavitt was sentenced to be hanged on May 9, 1884, but on April 29, Gov. John Ireland commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.17 Johnson, meanwhile, continued to call for jury reform, pointing out that even in counties with African American majorities, “not five negroes have been selected as jurors in eight years.” As a result of such systemic racism, Johnson pointed out, “Hundreds of negroes have languished and are now languishing in prisons, who have been the mere victims of prejudice instead of being the fruit of fair and impartial trials."18
Johnson continued to speak out, and he was politically active as well, running for Brazos County district attorney in 1886. In 1890, his political organizing was rewarded with a civil service position with the Railway Mail Service, and he relocated to Washington, D.C. While working full time as a civil servant, Johnson earned an M.D. in 1895. He remained engaged in community affairs as well, founding the National Colored Peoples Cooperative Beneficial Association. Yet even from afar, Johnson kept a close eye on Texas and its African American community, and he continued to publish editorials and letters to the editor on subjects ranging from lynchings to voting rights to police brutality and the deaths of African Americans in police custody. Johnson died at his Washington, D.C., home on March 13, 1906; he did not live to see Perry Cavitt walk out of prison in December of that year, pardoned by Gov. Samuel Lanham after serving 23 years of his life sentence.
An obituary described John N. Johnson as “a great advocate of justice and right.”19 While no buildings or streets bear his name, an effort is underway for a historical marker honoring him. The planned site of this marker is at the Brazos County courthouse, the site where Johnson unsuccessfully battled discrimination against himself and other African Americans—a fitting location indeed.TBJ
JOHN G. BROWNING is a former justice of the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas. He is the immediate past chair of the State Bar of Texas Computer & Technology Section. The author of five books and numerous articles on social media and the law, Browning is a nationally recognized thought leader in technology and the law.