A shrewd and 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.
Early years in Atlanta
Styles Linton Hutchins was born in 1852 in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He must have lied about his age in order 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’s record shows him to have enlisted in 1864 and served for one year, until an unspecified date in 1865. He was, at most, 12 years old when he enlisted!
This unusual young man was the son of an unusual father: William Dougherty Hutchins was one of the handful of free Southern blacks (he bought his freedom in 1852) who operated private businesses before the Civil War – in this case a barbershop. 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, 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. Styles, who began grade school at the age of six, remembered that his first childhood job was working as a bootblack in the barbershop.
One of the other barbers in Dougherty Hutchins’s 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.
Education and admission to the bar
Styles Hutchins was one of the first black graduates of Atlanta University, taking a teaching position and even serving briefly as principal at Knox Institute in Athens, Georgia, where he supervised six other teachers and 250 students. After the bright youngster earned a law degree from the University of South Carolina Law School, he was admitted to the South Carolina bar on December 7, 1868. Governor Wade Hampton appointed him a Richland County trial justice, a post he resigned in the wake 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 help and support of James Banks, a young white lawyer who served on Hutchins’s four-man examination committee. One of the other examiners, allegedly Judge John T. Hopkins, “tried the old dodge, and put him through a course of questions such as nobody in the state could answer, and reported against his admission.” (Springfield Republican, December 28, 1877) However, the other three tested him fairly. James Banks’s lengthy recommendation 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 account of his color. (Atlanta Daily Constitution, January 31, 1878)
A certificate recognizing his status as an attorney and permitting him to plead cases in Georgia courts was issued January 28, 1878. Thus Styles Hutchins 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’s 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 suit 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 forthcoming Congressional elections.
Marriage, trouble with the law, and a move to Chattanooga
The 1880 census placed “Stiles” Hutchins in McIntosh County, Georgia, which he had represented at the State Republican Convention in April, and where he was currently 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, “the habit of mixing his clients’ money with his own.” Many believed his useful career had ended, but the young attorney proved once again to be up to the challenge.
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.” Chattanooga gossip, passed along by the Constitution, suggested that Hutchins had met another woman there.
That woman’s identity is still a bit of a mystery, but she soon became the second of Styles Hutchins’s three wives. Their daughter Viola was born in May 1887, and Styles Jr. arrived in December 1893. The younger Styles Hutchins’s 1917 marriage application would list his mother’s name as “Cora,” and his 1957 obituary reported that she was “Cora Smith Hutchins.” However, her tombstone inscription reads “Dora Hutchins / Wife of / S. L. Hutchins / Nov. 14, 1895 / Aged 27 Yrs.” (Hamilton County Tombstone Inscriptions, Negro, published as a WPA project in 1939) Sometime shortly after her death, Styles Sr. married 19-year-old Mattie, who would raise his two youngsters. (Mattie’s obituary said they were married February 3, 1893, but that date is doubtful for several reasons. The actual date was probably February 1896.) Their marriage seems to have been quite successful, lasting more than 50 years. In summary, Styles Hutchins Sr. was married to Clara from 1880 to 1883, to Cora/Dora from around 1885 until 1895, and to Mattie from 1896 until his death in 1950.
Chattanooga law practice and election to the Tennessee General Assembly
Sometime after 1881 Hutchins opened a law practice in Chattanooga while also serving as editor of The Independent Age, a popular African American newspaper, notable for the fact that it was entirely owned and operated by African Americans. 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 Republican 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 loudly unsympathetic to African Americans who accepted minor public offices that he said were only offered as a ploy 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, although his outspoken nature caused white lawyers to characterize him as “flamboyant and rebellious,” Hutchins himself ran for the legislature in the next election (1886), winning by a razor-thin margin of eight votes! His victory made him only the second African American from Hamilton County elected to state office in Tennessee.
A tireless advocate of civil rights, the 35-year-old Republican took his seat in the Tennessee House in 1887, the year his daughter Viola was born. He served on the committees for education and new c ounties and was actually successful in carrying two bills through to passage, a feat few other black legislators were able to accomplish. The first bill, HB 136, repealed an amendment to the Chattanooga city charter that required voters to pay a poll tax. Surprisingly, it 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 not successful, even though he did not frame it as a racial issue.
The fiery legislator continued to make scandalous headlines even during his term in office. An 1888 newspaper article, written while he was still a member of the General Assembly, described an altercation between Hutchins and “a white man from North Georgia,” during which Hutchins was stabbed on the leg, receiving “an ugly gash in his right leg just below the knee, . . . [and] severing a tendon, which may result in laming him for life.” In response to the knifing, Hutchins whipped out his pistol and shot the other man in the abdomen, the bullet passing entirely through his body. Neither Hutchins nor anyone else involved – the incident had occurred in a private room in the Fifth Ward with several others present – would comment on the assault or provide the name either of the man who was shot or of his companions, who swiftly disappeared, whisking the injured man “off to Georgia in a wagon.” The paper failed to publish a follow-up article during the next week, even though the story had suggested the shooting may have been fatal: “If the man is shot as badly as Hutchins states, he can hardly recover, according to the opinion of several doctors.” (Chattanooga Daily Times, March 17, 1888)
After his legislative term ended, Hutchins returned to his Chattanooga law practice and may also have taken a patronage position with the revenue department of the U.S. Treasury, perhaps as a gauger like Thomas A. Sykes.
Because of his fervent speeches on improving the condition of American blacks, S. L. Hutchins was sometimes confused with a contemporary who was a popular Georgia preacher – P. S. L. Hutchins of the United Brethren in Christ – and who frequently used his sermons to inspire members of his congregations to better themselves. In one memorable sermon Pastor Hutchins took as his text these words from Hosea 4:0: “My people are destroyed for the lack of knowledge.”
In 1899 Styles Hutchins was named as the founder of the National American Colonization Organization, whose goal was to form a colony of blacks in the Western United States and to secure from Congress “a concession to allow the colonies so formed the right of State Government and representatives in Congress.” The charter application averred that, in such a colony, “the Negro will solve the question speedily as to whether he is worthy of citizenship, and to be an integral part of the governing people.” A Freeman article from 1903 positioned Hutchins in the vanguard of a Chattanooga movement supporting “the emigration of Negroes to Mexico.”
A Chattanooga lynching case goes to the Supreme Court
In 1906 Hutchins became 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 that night, 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.
Final years in Illinois
Both attorneys hastily 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 reportedly lived in Indianapolis for a short while, but by 1910 Styles was practicing law in Peoria, Illinois. That was the last year he worked as an attorney. The 1920 census lists him as the owner/operator of a Kewanee, Illinois, barbershop, which he operated out of his home. Having worked in an Atlanta barbershop as a youngster, he must have found this a logical choice for his later years (he was 70 years old by this time). Styles Jr. (26) had married and moved home to work as a barber in his father’s shop, in an interesting echo of the family situation a generation earlier. The younger Hutchins was married twice – in 1917 to Ethel M. Ellworth Johnson (a woman who had a young child from an earlier marriage) and to Hannah Belle Carter 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.
The family moved from Kewanee to Mattoon, Illinois, between 1921 and 1925. Hutchins continued to operate a barbershop until late spring 1946, six months before his 94th birthday. By that time, cataracts had weakened his vision too much for him to work.
According to Illinois death records, Styles Linton Hutchins Sr., who had joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses, died on September 7, 1950, two months before his 98th birthday. He was survived by Mattie and Styles Jr, 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 (Section 8, Division QinB), where Mattie would join him five years later, in her 77th year. Styles Jr. and his wife Hannah died a week apart in 1957 and are buried nearby.
Portraits of Styles Hutchins and Noah Parden, whom Georgia claims as two of its earliest black lawyers, still hang in a hallway of the Georgia Supreme Court. KBL 12/19/2012