Tennessee State Library and Archives

Styles Linton Hutchins, November 21, 1852 - September 7, 1950

Styles Linton Hutchins

Styles L. Hutchins
from composite photograph of
TN House of Representatives,
45th General Assembly, 1887-1888,
TSLA Collection.

A spirited Chattanooga attorney, Styles L. Hutchins was elected to represent Hamilton County in the 45th Tennessee General Assembly, 1887-1888.  Hutchins and his two colleagues in the House, Monroe Gooden and Samuel McElwee, were the last African Americans to serve in the state legislature until A. W. Willis Jr. of Memphis took his seat in the House of Representatives in January 1965, nearly 80 years later.

Styles Linton Hutchins was born in 1852 in Lawrenceville, Georgia.  He may have lied about his age to serve with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.  A June 1890 census record (“Special Schedule, Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines, and Widows, Etc.”) indicates that he was a private in “Company A, 15th U.S. Col.”   The 15th Infantry Regiment was organized at Nashville on December 1863.  The unit was attached to the Post and District of Nashville, Department of the Cumberland, until August 1864; to the Post of Springfield, District of Nashville, until March 1865; and to the 5th Sub-District, District of Middle Tennessee, Department of the Cumberland, to April 1866.  Hutchins’ record shows him to have enlisted in 1864 and served for one year, until an unspecified date in 1865.  He was, at most, 13 years old!

This unusual young man was the son of an unusual father: William Dougherty Hutchins was one of the very few free blacks who operated private businesses – in this case a barbershop – before the Civil War.  The shop continued to be highly popular throughout the Reconstruction period.  As author Carole Merritt explains, “There was a growing market of white men in post-Emancipation Atlanta who were accustomed to service by blacks,” so it was customary for barbershops run by African Americans to cater to a white clientele, just as Sampson Keeble and others had discovered in Nashville.  The teen-age Styles Hutchins (17) and his 19-year-old brother Alvin appeared in the 1870 census as barbers in their father’s busy Atlanta shop.

One of the other barbers in Dougherty Hutchins’ barbershop in the 1870s and early 1880s was a young man named Alonzo Herndon, a former slave from Social Circle, Georgia.  Four years after Hutchins hired him as a journeyman barber, the 28-year-old Herndon opened his own shop in the Markham House Hotel.  Undeterred by an 1896 fire that destroyed the hotel, he soon opened another, more stylish barbershop on Peachtree Street, featuring crystal chandeliers, gilt-framed mirrors, mahogany doors, and other elegant trappings.  According to the New York World, it had a reputation “from Richmond all the way to Mobile as the best barbershop in the South.”  Not long after Herndon expanded his holdings to three shops employing 75 barbers, he opened an insurance business that eventually became Atlanta Life Insurance, then “the largest Negro stock company in the world,” (Rabinowitz, 86) and still a thriving business today as Atlanta Life Financial Group.  The Hutchins sons were fortunate to grow up in an environment that so fervently encouraged young black men to cultivate and market their talents.    

Styles Hutchins was one of the first black graduates of Atlanta University, taking a teaching position for a short time and even serving briefly as the principal of Knox Institute in Athens, Georgia. After the bright youngster earned a law degree from the University of South Carolina Law School and was admitted to the South Carolina bar, Governor Wade Hampton (1876-1879) appointed him a trial justice in Richland County, a post he resigned in the face of Democratic violence during the next election.

Returning to Georgia, the 25-year-old Hutchins applied for admission to the Georgia bar.  “I intend to practice law in this city,” he declared.  “I have been in good practice in the courts of South Carolina from the supreme court down, and in the United States circuit court.  I have my diploma.  I think I am capacitated to practice. . . . If I have to stand an examination, I am ready for it.” (Atlanta Constitution, Nov. 4, 1877) In time Hutchins overcame a lackluster opposition from the legislature, largely with the support of James Banks, a young lawyer who had served on Hutchins’ examination committee.  Banks’ lengthy statement to the court exemplified the changing sensibilities of a new generation:

It is a novel thing for a colored man to be admitted to practice law in Georgia.  Many, however, have been admitted in other states, and I see from the papers that one was recently admitted in Alabama. I am proud to say such actions in southern states show a growing disposition to secure the colored man in the enjoyment of every legal right. Not in theory, but in fact.  When this applicant was examined by me, I asked myself this question, which to some may seem an extreme view, but yet for me contains the true test. “Were Hutchins a white man, on this examination would I report in favor of his admission?” The character of his examination compelled an affirmative answer.  It  is, however, for your  honor to decide,  and I feel safe  in saying that  if he is entitled under his examination to be admitted, that your honor will not deny him the  right on ac-of  his color.

Styles Hutchins thus became not only the first African American attorney admitted to the Georgia bar but also the first to plead a case before a judge in that state.  Several period newspaper reports also chronicle his interest and participation in local politics.

African American attorneys moved into roles in the Southern courts very slowly.  The first recorded case argued by a black lawyer took place in Nashville in 1870.  Although African American attorneys began to appear in the Nashville Criminal Court the following year, it would be nearly 1880 before a black attorney would argue a case in the Chancery Court.  Atlanta was progressing even more slowly – Hutchins’ earliest appearance in a Georgia court (the first for any African American lawyer in the state) was in 1877, the same year the Compromise of 1877 ended Congressional Reconstruction and put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House.

In June 1878 Hutchins filed a case to test whether barbershops could operate on Sundays.  (They could.)  A year later he made headlines by shooting himself in the hand with a pistol.  He seems to have made a quick recovery, however, and was soon back in the news with some belligerent comments about the imminent Congressional elections.

The 1880 census placed “Stiles” Hutchins in McIntosh County, Georgia, where he was working as an attorney.  Now 28 years old, he was living in a boarding house with his new wife, Clara (33), also a Georgia native.  Their marriage record lists her surname as “Harris,” but an 1883 article in the Atlanta Constitution says she was “formerly Clara Thomas.”  Hutchins seems to have run afoul of the law during that period.  Atlanta newspapers carried the story of his two-year prison term for, as one sardonic writer put it, “a too affectionate attachment to his clients’ money.”
By 1883 Hutchins had been released from prison and was living in Tennessee.  According to a September 1883 news report in the Atlanta Constitution, he had recently filed suit to divorce Clara on two counts: the first was infidelity; the second, as the Constitution gleefully described it, was that she had “duped and inveigled him into marriage with her by representing herself as a bonafide and iron-clad divorced woman, when in truth and in fact she had not obtained a regulation yard-wide-and-all-wool divorce from her said first husband.”  Gossip from Chattanooga, passed along by the Constitution, suggested that he had met another woman there. 

The failure of Styles Hutchins’ first marriage presents an interesting question about the mother of the two Hutchins children.  We know he was married to Clara from 1880 to 1883, and to a woman named Mattie from 1896 until his death in 1950.  But Styles’ daughter Viola was born in May 1887, and Styles Junior arrived in October 1893 – between the other two marriages.  Who was their mother?  Clara was out of the picture by then; Mattie, born in 1877, was too young to have been the children’s mother.  There are a few scattered clues to her identity, although they add yet another layer of confusion.  Styles Junior’s 1917 marriage application lists his mother’s name as “Cora.”  Another source, the Biographical Directory of the Tennessee General Assembly informs us that Hutchins’ wife died on November 14, 1895.  Her tombstone inscription (in Hamilton County Tombstone Inscriptions, Negro, published as a WPA project in 1939), reads “Dora Hutchins / Wife of / S. L. Hutchins / Nov. 14, 1895 / Aged 27 Yrs.”  This is certainly not Clara, whom Hutchins married in 1880, when this woman was 12 years old; nor is it Mattie, who outlived Cora/Dora by 60 years.  Whoever the children’s mother may have been, it was Mattie who raised the two youngsters.  Her own marriage to Styles Hutchins seems to have been successful, lasting more than 50 years.

Sometime after 1881 Hutchins opened a law practice in Chattanooga while also serving as editor of The Independent Age, a popular African American newspaper. He found plenty to write about.  For one thing, the 1884 election that sent black candidate William C. Hodge to the Tennessee General Assembly had also created a deep rift in the Republican Party.  Local white party leaders bolted from the party caucus and backed an independent candidate for the legislature.  Hutchins was part of a group of dissident blacks who quickly organized their own caucus.  He was extremely unsympathetic to African Americans who accepted minor public offices from whites he said were only trying to buy black votes cheaply: “Are you dogs and slaves to act like that?”

Having endeared himself to black voters by becoming a passionate spokesman for civil rights, Hutchins himself ran for the legislature in the next election (1886), winning by a razor-thin margin of eight votes!

A tireless legislator, the 35-year-old Republican took his seat in the Tennessee House in 1887, the same year his daughter Viola was born.  He served on the committees for Education and New Counties and was actually successful in carrying two bills through to passage, a feat few other black legislators were able to accomplish. The first, HB 136, repealed an 1883 amendment to the Chattanooga city charter that required voters to pay a poll tax.  Surprisingly, the bill faced no challenges – white officials evidently failed to grasp the potential of such a bill to reduce black voting strength.  [They would remember it the following year, however, when the 46th General Assembly, which had no black members, enacted a statewide poll tax as the first of several measures designed to disfranchise African American voters.]  Another Hutchins bill, HB 413, which prevented criminals convicted in other states from testifying in Tennessee courts, was adopted by a vote of 72-4.  His bill to limit the use of convict labor was unsuccessful, even though he does not seem to have framed it as a racial issue.

After his legislative term ended, Hutchins returned to his Chattanooga law practice, took a patronage position in the revenue department of the U.S. Treasury, and became deeply involved in church work. He was known throughout Tennessee and Georgia as a fiery preacher (United Brethren in Christ) who frequently used his sermons to denounce racism in the South.

In 1906 Hutchins was involved in one of the most famous lynching cases in history. Hired to appeal the rape conviction of a black man named Ed Johnson, Hutchins and his young law partner, Noah W. Parden, carried the appeal as high as the Supreme Court, where Justice John Marshall Harlan granted them a hearing.  [Parden thus became the first African American to be designated as lead counsel in a Supreme Court case.]  The Court issued a stay of execution for Johnson and sent word to Tennessee of the decision. As the two lawyers celebrated their victory, a mob broke into the Hamilton County jail, dragged Johnson through the city, beat him cruelly, and hanged him from a bridge.

Hutchins and Parden immediately urged federal officials to file suit against the sheriff and members of the mob. In a precedent-setting case, the Supreme Court found Sheriff Shipp and others guilty of contempt of court. After serving only a brief sentence, however, Shipp returned home to a hero's welcome, while angry citizens set Hutchins and Parden’s office on fire, threw rocks at their homes, and threatened their lives.
Both attorneys quickly left town.  Parden took his wife and young children to St. Clair, Illinois, where their names appeared in census records in 1910, 1920, and 1930.  The Hutchins family moved a little farther north.  In 1910 Hutchins was practicing law in Peoria, Illinois; the 1920 census lists him as the owner/operator of a Kewanee, Illinois, barbershop, which he operated out of his home on West Fifth Street. (Knowing that he grew up working in a historically important Atlanta barbershop makes this a logical choice for his later years – he was 70 years old by this time.)  Styles Junior (26) had married and moved home, where he was working as a barber in his father’s shop, in an interesting echo of the family situation a generation earlier. The younger Hutchins married twice – in 1917 to Ethel M. Ellworth Johnson (a woman who had been married before and had a young child) and to Hannah Bell sometime before 1942.  Ethel and Mattie Hutchins were both employed at the Parkside Hotel in Kewanee.  The hotel, called the Hotel Kewanee after the 1950s, was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

According to Illinois death records, Styles Linton Hutchins Senior died September 7, 1950, two months before his 98th birthday.  By then a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he was survived by Mattie and Styles Junior of Mattoon; his daughter, Viola Kirkpatrick of Indianapolis, Indiana; and a granddaughter.  Hutchins was laid to rest in the Dodge Grove Cemetery in Mattoon, Illinois, where his beloved Mattie (77) would join him five years later.  Styles Jr. and his wife Hannah both died in 1957 and are buried nearby.


KBL  2/4/2011


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Special thanks to State Librarian and Archivist Chuck Sherrill for the great tip about Hutchins’ Civil War service, and to Dave Clarke of the Star Courier, Kewanee, Illinois, for sharing information about the Hutchins family.

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