The Napier-Looby Bar Association (“NLBA”) is an affiliate chapter of The National Bar Association, and was founded in 1933 to serve many functions in the African-American and the legal communities. Since 1880, Nashville has enjoyed a significant presence of eloquent and successful black lawyers. Prior to the turn of the twentieth century, ten black lawyers operated part-time and full-time law practices. Among them were D. L. Lapsley, James C. Napier, George Robinson, Z. T. Woods and W. H. Young. Several had been former slaves such as Taylor Ewing, Alfred Menefee, Samuel Lowery and Nelson Walker. Training for many black lawyers was acquired at Howard University School of Law and Central Tennessee College, located in South Nashville.
In the early 1900’s the number of black lawyers in Nashville had almost doubled to nineteen. Among the most active and aggressive was Robert L. Mayfield, a graduate of Howard Law School, who was admitted to the bar in 1900. In 1905, Mr. Mayfield sued the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company for its failure to provide blacks with equal facilities on the train. Though the court admitted the validity of Mr. Mayfield’s charges, the court rejected his claim. The Tennessee Supreme Court refused to review his case on the grounds that the alleged racial discrimination was not harmful to blacks. As a result, black citizens retaliated by boycotting the railway and by forming a black owned and operated streetcar service. Other black lawyers active in Nashville in the early 1900’s included T. G. Abbott, P. W. Adams, James Bumpus, James Bumpus, Jr., Henry Charis, William Crosswaith, James Harris, George Jackson, J. W. Kizer, Joseph Manson, Samuel A. McElwee, who served three terms in the Tennessee General Assembly, Nicholas B. Smith and Thomas J. Turner.
In 1933, since the Nashville Bar Association would not admit black persons into its membership, Nashville’s black lawyers formed the James C. Napier Lawyers Association as an affiliate chapter of the National Bar Association, in recognition of the distinguished career of Mr. Napier. The James C. Napier Lawyers Association was interested in intellectual advancement, comradeship among members and the public good. The president was Walter S. Walker and members included Z. Alexander Looby, J. C. Napier, Robert E. Lillard, R. B. J. Campbell, S. P. Harris, W. D. Hawkins and Coyness Ennix. Many of its members enjoyed outstanding legal careers and national reputations. For example, the man for whom the original association was named, James C. Napier, was a three-term Nashville City Council member. He also served as President William H. Taft’s Register of the United States Treasury from 1911 to 1913. Other prominent members included Z. Alexander Looby, who achieved national acclaim as a trial lawyer and academician, having founded the Kent College of Law in Nashville, and Robert E. Lillard, who was elected twice as President of the National Bar Association. In 1978, the organization was reconstituted and its name changed to the Napier-Looby Bar Association, in memory of Z. Alexander Looby.
Today the Napier-Looby Bar Association (NLBA) is comprised of judges and lawyers of different races and nationalities. NLBA is active in legal activities and civic affairs. Among its events is a banquet and awards program to honor distinguished attorneys and judges. NLBA has been privileged to have speakers of national prominence at its banquet and awards programs, including, among others, Drew Days, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights; Mary Francis Berry, United States Civil Rights Commission; Judge Nathaniel R. Jones, United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit; Fred D. Gray, President, National Bar Association; Julius L. Chambers, Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Jack Greenburg, Professor of Law, Columbia University; Roderick Gillum, General Counsel, Saturn Corporation; Justice Reuben V. Anderson, Mississippi Supreme Court; Justice Dennis W. Archer, Michigan Supreme Court; Dr. Benjamin Hooks; and Ernest Green, a member of the “Little Rock Nine.”
In 2001, the NLBA authorized the formation of The Napier-Looby Bar Foundation, Inc. (NLBF). The purpose of the NLBF is to raise funds for scholarships and charitable donations to deserving individuals and endeavors in the Middle Tennessee community.