Introducing two historical legacies of the legal profession

One of the interesting things about studying local history is coming across the variety of unique and distinguished people who made their home in our community during part of their lives.

One of the subjects of this column is a gentleman I had never heard of until a few weeks ago. I learned of this man through Randall Wilson of Baton Rouge, a Webster High School graduate of 1971, who along with some of his fellow alumni are working to preserve and promote the often-missing history of African-Americans in Minden.

Other than a little fleshing out through Internet sources, the main source of this article are the facts I learned from Randall. His work is greatly appreciated.

The other gentleman in this article, also an attorney, lived in Minden for a brief time during its early history, before launching out on a career that took him to the highest levels of the United States government.

Local tradition has always stated that the first African-American attorney to open practice in the Shreveport area was Jesse Stone, a 1941 graduate of Webster High School, who went on to a distinguished career as an attorney, a justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, and as President of the Southern University System.

On the local front, he was the lead attorney in the case of Gilbert et al v Webster Parish School Board that led to the desegregation of local schools.

However, as I have learned the tradition was only partially true, the first African-American attorney in Shreveport was originally from Minden, but it was not Jesse Stone and the actual pioneer began his legal practice in about 1914, much earlier than Stone’s 1950 beginning of practice.

This man was Charles Morris Robinson and his story is one of courage and perseverance.

Charles Morris Roberson was born in Minden, Louisiana on January 30, 1875. As a young man he moved west, leaving Minden to work as a chauffeur and general handyman to a prominent family in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Roberson’s ambitions were far greater than just the average workman; he intended to study the law.

In those years at the beginnings of the Jim Crow South, he was permitted to study law at southern law schools as few regular colleges for African-Americans existed, much less graduate programs.

Roberson studied at and received his juris doctorate degree from the University of Chicago in 1912, Roberson sought to take the Louisiana Bar Examination.

Upon hearing that Roberson intended to take the bar exam, a group of white lawyers protested and called a meeting and discussed tactics to discourage Charles Roberson from taking the exam.

At this point, an unlikely champion for Roberson’s cause emerged, Civil War Veteran and Confederate Captain – Caddo Parish Judge Thomas Fletcher Bell.

Judge Bell intervened and demanded that Roberson be allowed to take the Bar Exam and Charles Roberson became the first African-American to become a lawyer in North Louisiana being admitted to the Louisiana Bar on December 14, 1914. He was 39 years old.

(Obviously the struggle involved for African-Americans to earn an education delayed their entries into careers. For example, one of the first African-American lawyers in Louisiana was former Governor P. B. S. Pinchback, who did not gain admission to the bar until he was 48 years old.)

Roberson began his private practice in Shreveport after gaining admission to the bar.

As many black businessmen of that time did, he would later set up his office in Cora Murdock Allen’s Calanthean Temple on Texas Avenue in Shreveport.

The Calanthean Temple was built in 1923 and was considered an architectural wonder in its day. It was the first office building of its type designed by a black woman in the United States.

The Calanthean’s rooftop terrace was the venue for hosting parties featuring Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Count Basie and many, many others.

Charles Roberson became active in all areas of the community. He was a member of the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity and the National Negro Bar Association.

He served as the attorney for most African-American religious and civic groups, including the National Baptist Convention, the Louisiana Baptist State Convention, the 13th District Baptist Association, St. John’s Grand Masonic Lodge and the Knights and Daughters of Tubor.

In March 1919, Roberson went on a trip for the foreign missions arm of the National Baptist Convention to Liberia, returning to the US in July of that year.
He was elected the second president of the NAACP in Shreveport. He helped to stabilize that organization that fallen into disarray from its previous leadership.
His status in the community, even in those years of Southern apartheid, was noticeable in the coverage of the Shreveport Times.

Roberson, on several occasions for civic events in Shreveport — such as the drives to raise funds for the troops during World War I and even the state convention of the CME church (not his denomination) — was the featured speaker.

After World War I, many returning African-American soldiers began to see the need for changes to provide full citizenship to black Americans. Roberson soon found himself in the forefront of this movement.

In Shreveport, Roberson led the fight against a proposed school funding plan that, sadly as was common in those days, appropriated nothing for black schools.
In a similar vein, black civic leaders in Webster Parish were pressing for a public high school for blacks in the early 1920’s. The parish had provided a school for white students — Minden High School — since 1897.

Once the Constitution of 1898 allowed the creation of black schools, the parish shuffled off the duty of creating black schools and their funding to the churches.
In the early 1920s, the Webster Parish School Board agreed to the concept of a black school but failed to provide funding for the school in their budget. The black Minden citizens were told they would have to raise the first money for the school themselves.

Proud of their native son Charles Roberson, who had become so successful in the legal arena — the first trustee board for Minden’s first black public high school, invited Roberson to be the speaker for the school’s first fund raiser.

The fund raiser was extremely successful and was followed by fund raisers at local churches — spearheaded by Mt. Zion CME and St. Rest Baptist Churches.
By the Fall of 1921, the new school for black students named Minden Union High School opened for its first day of classes.

In 1924, Roberson received another signal honor as he was selected as a delegate to the Republican National Convention held in Cleveland that nominated Calvin Coolidge for the office of President.

Roberson died on April 1, 1932 and is buried in the Star Cemetery in Shreveport. It is a shame that our community has failed to recognize the achievements of this pioneer in civil rights and the legal profession.

The second subject of this column is Henry Martyn Spofford. Spofford was born in Gilmarton, New Hampshire on September 8, 1821.

He graduated from Amherst College and relocated to Minden in 1842, coming to teach at the old Minden Academy which had been opened on a special grant from the Louisiana Legislature in 1838.

(Oddly enough Spofford’s future career as an attorney would be followed by two later teachers at the Minden Male Academy which took the place of the Academy after 1850. Both A. B. George, eventually a Justice of the Court of Appeals, and John D. Watkins, later a D.A., District Judge and State Senator, both came to Minden as teachers before admission to the bar.)

After three years at the Minden Academy, Spofford was admitted to the Louisiana Bar and relocated to Shreveport where he set up a legal practice.
He soon became well-known in the area and in 1854 was elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court at the age of 33.

At that point, Spofford basically relocated to the seat of that court in New Orleans, and after leaving the bench in 1858, he opened his legal practice in the Crescent City. He would continue to practice law in New Orleans until his death.

In 1876, Spofford was nominated by the Democrat-controlled legislature for a seat in the United States Senate.

During the settlement of that year’s election that resulted in the end of Reconstruction and the elevation of Rutherford B. Hayes to the Presidency, Spofford was an inadvertent casualty.

In 1876, Louisiana (as in 1872), had turned in two complete sets of election returns, one coming from parish returns, electing the Democrats, and one from the state level Returning Board, certifying the Republican slate.

A complicated set of machinations took place to solve the national crisis. Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina allowed the Republican Electoral Votes to be counted, electing Hayes over Samuel Tilden.

In return, the Hayes Administration brought an end to Reconstruction and recognized the Democratic state government and legislature; however, in a twist, the United States Senate rejected Spofford’s claim to the Senate seat, turning instead to the Republican nominee, former Governor William Pitt Kellogg.

After this defeat, Spofford’s health took a bad turn and he temporarily relocated to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in hopes of regaining his health. He was residing there when he died on August 21, 1880.

Spofford was buried in the family cemetery of his wife’s family in Pulaski, Tennessee, however, his wife erected a large monument to his memory in the Metairie Cemetery in the New Orleans area.

So, these are two names who need to be added to the legacy of the legal profession in Minden — One, a ground-breaking African-American lawyer who broke the barriers holding him back — and another who rose from the classroom to the highest levels of government – Charles M. Roberson and Henry M. Spofford.

Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald and Thursdays at press-herald.com.

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