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 of these lawyers had been former slaves such as Taylor Ewing, Alfred Menefee, Samuel Lowery and Nelson Walker. Many black lawyers obtained legal training from Howard University School of Law and Central Tennessee College, located in South Nashville.
By the early 1900’s the number of black lawyers in Nashville had almost doubled to nineteen. Among the most active and aggressive lawyers 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 street car 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, a group of black lawyers decided to form 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 inaugural 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 the members of the James C. Napier Lawyers Association were accomplished lawyers with 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 chapter is composed of more than 100 attorneys in Nashville and Davidson County. The Napier-Looby Bar Association is an affiliate chapter of the National Bar Association, the oldest and largest association of attorneys of color in the world. Founded in 1925, the NBA is currently headquartered in Washington, D.C. The association has 88 affiliate chapters and represents over 20,000 lawyers, judges, and law students globally.