The 'Unholy Alliance' with Edward Shaw

In their wonderful book Contempt of Court, Leroy Phillips of the Chattanooga bar and lawyer/reporter Mark Curriden tells the story of Ed Johnson, an African American victim of a kangaroo court trial and eventual lynching in 1906. Phillips and Curriden chronicle the extraordinary efforts of African American attorneys Styles L. Hutchins and Noah W. Parden to save Johnson's life by an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, and the dangerous hostility that Hutchins and Parden and their families faced from white citizens. A dark chapter in the history of Hamilton County, the episode is a bright example of courage and fortitude by early African American members of our profession.

The story of Hutchins and Parden is well known in Chattanooga and elsewhere, and is focused on their skill as advocates for Ed Johnson.

This month's digression into Tennessee legal history will focus on a different tangent: the forgotten political courage and savvy of Edward Shaw, an African American lawyer from Shelby County whose story came to my attention a few years ago. Shaw was born in Kentucky in the 1820s, and came to Memphis as a free man around 1852. His history before the Civil War, and therefore how he escaped the legal and social impediments to be a free black man prior to the war, is murky. After the war, he opened a successful saloon, and eventually became a lawyer and edited a newspaper, The Memphis Planet.

Shaw was most remarkable for his political leadership of Memphis's African American community in the years before the curtain of Jim Crow descended to effectively remove African Americans from being a significant factor in politics for several decades. Shaw's forceful oratory was denounced by his white political opponents as being "ultra and bitter." He continually agitated for equal treatment from his people's natural political allies, the Republicans, who were glad to accept the support of the black population at the ballot box, but not accord African American politicians their fair share of patronage or offices. In 1868, Shaw and others were conducting a mass political meeting and were fired on by the Ku Klux Klan. Instead of scattering, they returned the Klansmen's fire.

In 1869, Shaw unsuccessfully ran for the Shelby County Commission, and learned that a prominent local Republican, General W. J. Smith, opposed him on the basis of his race. When Smith ran for Congress the next year, Shaw excoriated the racism and ingratitude of Smith and others, and actually ran for Congress against Smith as an independent, becoming the first African American candidate for Congress from Tennessee. Both Smith and Shaw were defeated by a white Democrat, teaching the white Republican power structure an important lesson: they should not take their African American constituents for granted. Subsequent Republican candidates were required to state their support for integration, and black candidates began to get elected to the Memphis City Council. Shaw himself became the city's wharfmaster, and his influence extended outside Memphis, as he was elected chairman of the State Convention of Colored Men in 1874.

Shaw's willingness to buck the Republican power structure for black political advantage did not escape the white Democrats of the day. During the struggle within the Democratic Party brought about by the state debt controversy in the early 1880's (see last month's Tennessee Bar Journal), Senator (and former Confederate Governor) Isham G. Harris's faction cut a deal with Shaw that delivered African American political support for the "low taxers" in the election of 1882 in return for support for black legislative candidates. This arrangement was termed by the opposition newspaper, the Memphis Avalanche, as "an unholy alliance." While Harris was the strongest Tennessee Democrat of the day, white opposition was such that even he could not deliver to Shaw a promised federal customs post at Memphis.

By the time of Shaw's death in 1891, white attitudes had shifted from a sort of paternalism to effective hostility, and with the conservative Democrats in control of the legislature in the late 1880s, the systematic effort to disenfranchise and segregate blacks that became known as Jim Crow got underway. But even as African Americans became politically neutralized, they recalled the days when Shaw led an active effort for equality. In December 1916, the African-American newspaper, the Nashville Globe, recalled Shaw as a "giant" who demonstrated what black leadership could do for African Americans, and taught the Republicans that took them for granted that the black, "though poor, was proud."

Note: My column in the September Journal mistakenly named attorney William L. Frierson as William G. Frierson. Frierson was the great-grandfather of Chattanooga attorney Scott Brown, and great-great grandfather of Knoxville attorney Chris Brown.