March 30, 2016

Austin’s First African-American Lawyer: John N. Johnson

Browning, John - Photo 2by John G. Browning

Long before Martin Luther King, Jr. preached and before a young Thurgood Marshall litigated for civil rights, an African-American lawyer in Austin was railing against dismal educational opportunities, disparate treatment of incarcerated black men, and racial violence, and he backed up his words with the filing of civil rights lawsuits. But this legal trailblazer fought his battles, not in post-World War II America, but in 1880s Texas. His name was John N. Johnson, and he was the first African-American attorney in Austin as well as the first African-American admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of Texas.

The rolls of the Court reveal his name on February 9, 1883, during a period in which most Texas lawyers did not seek admission to the Court unless they actually had a case pending before it. Referred to invariably in contemporary newspaper accounts as “the colored lawyer at Austin,” John N. Johnson was something of an anomaly even among the few African-American lawyers practicing in Texas at the time. The earliest known black attorney in the state, William A. Price, was practicing in Fort Bend County as early as 1872, and even by 1890 there were only a dozen African-American lawyers in Texas. Most of these shunned the cities for rural areas or small towns, usually places “with sizeable black populations and receptive political climates,” where they attended to the mundane legal needs of their communities. In contrast, John N. Johnson was a strident voice for social justice, and long before Brown v. Board of Education, he was filing what may have been the earliest civil rights lawsuits in Texas.

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John G. Browning is a shareholder in Passman & Jones in Dallas, where he handles a wide variety of civil litigation in state and federal courts. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the University of Texas School of Law. A noted legal historian and scholar, Mr. Browning is the author of several books and numerous articles. He serves as an adjunct professor at SMU Dedman School of Law, Texas Tech University School of Law, Texas A & M University School of Law, and is the Chair of the Texas Bar Journal Board of Editors.