History and the people who make it: Thomas Arthur Harris

Practicing law as a Black attorney in the Jim Crow south

The children of formerly enslaved Blacks in the Jim Crow South fought to acquire an education and succeed in white-collar professions. Segregated schools ensured that Black children would not receive education equivalent to that of their white peers. Their parents struggled to provide for their families and pay their taxes, only to see them misappropriated for white schools. Black families were forced to fundraise in their communities to overcome the void left by the absence of their tax dollars. Scholars call this double taxation. 

Black school children were barred from studying subjects that would allow them to pursue professional degrees in law or science. Those who did succeed in pursuing such degrees then faced prejudice, discrimination, and racially motivated violence in their professional practice. 

Ms. Dora Anderson, whose grandfather, Mr. Thomas Arthur Harris, attempted to open a legal practice in Tuskegee, Alabama, explains how her grandfather entered the legal profession. 

Ms. Anderson was interviewed by Dr. Paul Ortiz in August, 1994. This is the 69th in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. 

Transcript edited by Yiorgo Topalidis.

Anderson: He had worked very hard going to Atlanta, and Nashville, and Birmingham working with lawyers trying to get ready to pass this bar because they did not have law schools as such then, especially not for black people. So, he passed the bar and they told him then not to hang out his shingle, but he hung the shingle out at any rate.

As evinced by Ms. Anderson, her grandfather was an apprentice for many lawyers. He learned to practice law by working for them because law schools at the turn of the 20th century blocked Black Americans from earning law degrees. The shingle that Ms. Anderson mentioned refers to her grandfather’s law office sign. And from Dr. Paul Ortiz’s following query, we learn that the “they” were members of the KKK. 

Ortiz: So, did the Klan come to his house?

Anderson: Yes, they gave him so much time to get out of town and told him if he didn’t get out, that they would have him strung up to a tree at the lower part of the town. They said they would have him strung up by the time the sun was down. 

So after it was dark, Grandpa went across the street to Mr. John Alexander’s house. He was the Justice of the Peace. So, he said, “well now, they have not come, and it is night, do you think they are going to burn me down tonight, burn me and the children, you know, me and the family up tonight?” And so, Mr. Alexander said he didn’t know what they planned to do.

About that time, they looked down the street, and there, all of these torches were coming. So, he started to go through [Mr. Alexander’s] yard and on out to another street instead of going back home. But Mr. Alexander told him no, he did not want him to go through his yard. [The KKK] were in the yard out there and he said he didn’t want him to go through the yard because he had his daughters in the house there and he didn’t want them disturbed. 

About that time the mob was there. So, they started shooting and the first bullet went through Mr. Alexander’s neck …  and they shot my granddaddy’s left knee cap off and they left him there, you know, to die. Left him there to die. 

But grandma and her daughters came out and they were teenagers. Well anyhow, she carried them in the house and this young man that was there with them went through the back way downtown to the meat market to tell my daddy, he was the oldest son, what had happened. 

He told his cousin to hook up his horse to the buggy and he did, and he said it was in July and it was raining. And so, he came and put tourniquets over Grandpa’s knee down and below he said. And they wrapped him in quilts, and he put him in his buggy. They would have a little place here for the lines to come through. You know, driving the horses. But he put up his rain curtain, and he said he drove right through the mob. But they had five white doctors there and they did not let any of them take care of Grandpa. 

So, he decided to go to Montgomery. Said he had a cousin down there and he drove all that night. He drove that night in and out of places that he didn’t even know but he said the sun was up good when he arrived in Montgomery. And he got him to this cousin’s house and the cousin got him medical help. 

And he stayed there for about a month and then Papa said that he advised him to go to Mexico and he did. So, then he said in Mexico the language barrier was too great for him. You know, he hadn’t practiced too long, and he didn’t know Spanish at all, so he came back to Houston, Texas and he stayed there a while. But he finally came all the way back to Birmingham. That is where he practiced until he died. 

Ms. Dora Anderson reminds us that Black Americans had to put their lives on the line to achieve any form of upward mobility and semblance of socioeconomic justice in the United States. They fought against institutions barring them from access to the necessary educational opportunities. They fought against the Klan’s racial violence. They fought to ensure a better future for their children. 

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The SPOHP will post the recording and full transcript of this interview this summer. Search for “Dora Anderson” at https://ufdc.ufl.edu/oral for the recording and full transcript of this interview. If it doesn’t show up, try again in a few weeks.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change how we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy. 

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