The Origins of a New Negro Lawyer: Raymond Pace Alexander, 1898-1923

By Canton, David A. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Origins of a New Negro Lawyer: Raymond Pace Alexander, 1898-1923


Canton, David A., The Western Journal of Black Studies


Introduction

During the twentieth century, black lawyers played a Leading role in dismantling segregation and obtaining African American civil rights. Nationally known attorneys such as Charles Hamilton Houston, the first African American head counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); William Hastie, the first African American federal judge and NAACP lawyer; and Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first African American United States Supreme Court Justice, have received scholarly attention, but many equally important black attorneys such as Raymond Pace Alexander have been overlooked (McNeil, 1983; Ware, 1984; Williams, 1998). In her essay, "Black Lawyers and the Twentieth-Century Struggle for Constitutional Change," historian Darlene Clark Hine laments how historians neglected to explore the role of local attorneys who "labored behind the scenes" during the civil rights movement. Hine referred to black attorneys as "black legal soldiers ... who transformed constitutional jurisprudence to embrace the primacy of civil rights over states rights, and replaced the doctrine of "separate but equal" with one of equality: (Hine, 1995, 34). In addition to finding out more about the "local black attorneys" who assisted the NAACP during the civil rights movement, historians must examine the role that black attorneys such as Raymond Pace Alexander played in the civil rights struggle in Philadelphia from the New Negro Movement to the Civil Rights Era.

Between 1915 and 1954, the United States Supreme Court passed forty decisions in favor of the NAACP and black civil rights. White supremacy and Jim Crow laws in the South forced the NAACP litigation campaign to concentrate in the South. As a result, the NAACP's litigation campaign that desegregated graduate and professional schools, equalized black southern teacher's salaries, guaranteed a fair trial, and enforced the right the vote, viewed as a national movement, was in reality a southern movement. Alexander's civil rights struggle in Philadelphia complements the NAACP's southern campaign and expands the scope of civil rights scholarship. It forces historians to view the civil rights movement as a national, and not just a southern, movement. In Philadelphia, Alexander encountered extreme barriers such as hostile white juries, prosecutors, and judges. In northern cities blacks voted, but they still experienced de facto segregation in hotels, theaters, restaurants, housing, and schools. De facto segregation or institutional racism varied from city to city. For example, Charles Hardy maintains that, in 1923, the majority of Philadelphia's hotels, restaurants, and theaters were segregated. Moreover, some white businesses overtly violated the 1887 Pennsylvania's Equal Rights Law and posted signs that stated "No Negroes allowed" (Hardy, 1989, p. 199). In 1950, Raymond Pace Alexander recalled

"In 1923, the year of admission to our Bar, every central city theatre, motion picture as well as legitimate playhouse, had a pronounced policy of discrimination against Negro patrons. In the theatres that had but a one floor seating arrangement, a section in the rear of the theatre, the most uninviting side, was reserved for Negroes. In neighborhood houses, in white sections of Philadelphia and in the outlying districts, they simply refused to admit people of color at all even on a discriminatory basis and made no bones about it" (Alexander, 1950, 2).

Philadelphia was a northern city with southern race relations. Historian Rayford Logan argues that, between 1877-1901, a "color line in the New North" emerged (Logan, 1954, p. 215). This color line was racist and it segregated the black community. However, the segregated environment molded Alexander's race consciousness and commitment to protest. It forced Alexander to create his own black organizations, law practice, and fight for civil rights. Alexander was in the forefront of eradicating the color line in Philadelphia. …

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