Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 27, 2023

Taylor answers higher calling than the law

But that doesn’t diminish trailblazing legal career

Rheubin McGhee Taylor says there’s a call on his life. By this, he means he believes someone has beckoned him to serve in a capacity he did not choose.

At age 75, Taylor has lived long enough to aspire to be many things, and indeed has been many things, but he says he’s heard only one clarion call on his life. However, certain he was living a life of sufficient purpose, he says he avoided answering it until the only release from its unrelenting pull on his conscience was to yield.

While a boy, Taylor dreamed about what he would someday become. Inspired by stories about his late father flying reconnaissance missions as a Tuskegee Airman during World War II, Taylor aspired to become an Air Force pilot.

“I wanted to be like my daddy,” Taylor recalls. (Taylor’s father was killed while serving before Taylor was old enough to have preserved any memories of him.)

While Taylor felt passionate about his ambition, flying jets was not the call on his life. Looking back, he jokes that his fear of heights should have been a clue.

Taylor was a young adult when he set his heart on a career path. Although Chattanooga had no Black attorneys when he left home for college in the mid-1960s, he says he’d always liked helping people solve their problems and believed being a lawyer would offer him ample opportunities to do so.

When Taylor returned to Chattanooga seven years later (after four years at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and three years at Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C.), he accepted the help of others as he became the first Black licensed attorney in the city and gained a foothold in his chosen profession.

This assistance came in the form of a name and a recommendation.

“Our family was close to John (Porter) Franklin, the commissioner of education and health for the city of Chattanooga,” Taylor recalls. “My mom said, ‘Rheubin, if you’re going to return to Chattanooga, don’t try to practice law by yourself. Go in with somebody.’ She then asked Franklin to help me find a firm that would be open to hiring me. John gave me a list of attorneys he thought would be amenable to hiring a young Black lawyer with pork chop sideburns. Ward Crutchfield was on the list.”

At the time, Crutchfield was known not for his involvement in the Tennessee Waltz bribery scandal, which wouldn’t make headlines for 40 more years, but for his work in civil rights and with the African American community. Crutchfield was also an able trial lawyer, Taylor recalls, as were his partners, Don Moore and Stuart Jenkins.

After hiring Taylor at the recommendation of Marie Acklin, a Black politician who told Crutchfield she’d known Taylor “since before he was born,” Crutchfield hired the freshly minted attorney – pork chop sideburns and all – and the threesome tucked the fledgling under their wings and taught him how to practice law.

“I watched them prepare for and try cases, and I saw how those cases ended,” Taylor remembers. “They also taught me to listen to people, to be compassionate, to perceive what their problems are, and to do everything I could to help them. More than anything else, they taught me that the practice of law was less about the money you made and more about helping others.”

Although Taylor developed an active criminal defense practice and dabbled in other areas, the law was not the call on his life. He knows this, he says, because when he mulishly suggested that working as an attorney was an adequate avenue of service, the pull on his conscience grew stronger.

Being in Crutchfield’s orbit, Taylor naturally gravitated toward politics. His first foray into public service came in 1977 when he ran for the 28th legislative district for the Tennessee Constitutional Convention and won.

While Taylor was serving as chair of the committee that discussed increasing the amount of interest banks could charge for loans, he had a front row seat to the debate at the convention over a proposed change to Tennessee’s form of county government. He still recalls how that transformation allowed for a more diverse commission in Hamilton County.

“We’d tried on several occasions to encourage people to be more receptive to the Black community, Republicans and women, but our county government at the time consisted of a council with five members elected at large, so the Black community had a difficult time getting voters to seriously consider someone.”

In 1978, Tennessee voters approved switching to a commission system, which paved the way for a Hamilton County commission that included one Republican, one woman and two Black commissioners. Taylor was one of the latter.

Taylor served on the commission for 15 years, during which he had a hand in some of the early work that would lead to dramatic changes in Chattanooga.

For example, Taylor was among a group of local officials who traveled to Baltimore in the 1980s to visit the city’s aquarium as part of the exploratory work done to create a similar destination in Chattanooga.

Also, while Taylor was in Cincinnati to attend a convention, a group of friends took him to see the city’s Serpentine Wall, which runs along the Ohio River. At the time, the Tennessee Riverwalk was a half-formed thought, but when Taylor packed his fellow commissioners into a van and took them to see the wall, the hazy notion started to solidify into a vision, he says.

Still, politics was not the call that had descended upon Taylor, so he stepped down from the commission in 1993 to become the county attorney after his predecessor, Mike Mahn, convinced him to be open to the appointment. After a departing Mahn recommended Taylor for the post to then county executive Dalton Roberts, the job was his.

The position, which charges Taylor with representing Hamilton County in matters that involve contracts, negotiations, civil lawsuits and myriad other matters, as well as advising elected officials and county employees on governmental matters, is still his today – despite the efforts of current county mayor Weston Wamp to remove him.

Taylor remains relaxed when discussing the ordeal, which began in October 2022 when Wamp announced he was firing the longtime county attorney, whom Wamp’s predecessor, Jim Coppinger, had contracted to serve through 2025.

When the county commission informed Wamp that he lacked the authority to terminate the county attorney, a legal battle ensued between Taylor and Wamp that ended in July when Chancellor Jeff Atherton affirmed the validity of Taylor’s contract.

Taylor, who worked throughout the 10-month ordeal, says only that he appreciates the people who stood in his favor. “I’m thankful for the support of the county commission and other elected officials, I’m thankful to God for His blessing and protection, and I’m thankful for my wife and friends. They kept me going.”

Had Wamp succeeded in terminating Taylor, he would have unceremoniously ended a labor of service that at times had been a workaday grind but that had also placed Taylor in a position to aid the further progression of Hamilton County and the city of Chattanooga.

“I hope people will say I’ve made a contribution,” Taylor muses. “I aided those who had decisions to make and saw things come to pass that had once seemed impossible. When Dalton Roberts proposed building a walkway from Chickamauga Dam to Lookout Mountain, I thought, ‘How can that possibly happen?’ And when Claude Ramsey suggested taking over the Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant and turning it into an industrial park, I wondered if it could be done. And Jim Coppinger did good work with McDonald Farm toward the end of his administration.”

But even though serving as county attorney enabled Taylor to support himself and his family, it was not his calling. He knew this even as Roberts appointed him to the position.

Years earlier, Taylor also knew serving on the county commission was not his calling, and he was aware during his two decades as a privately practicing attorney that he had not yet answered the call on his life.

That’s because God called Taylor to preach as a boy, he says.

Like Jonah in the Old Testament story about the prophet who refused to declare the word of the Lord to the people of Ninevah, Taylor believed God wanted him to become a pastor but dodged the call.

Taylor first heard the call as an adolescent, he says, due in no small part to the influence of his grandmother, Mary Louise McGhee, who raised him during his formative years and taught him about the Christian faith.

His frequent presence at St. James Baptist Church, where his grandmother served as the Sunday School superintendent, also contributed to his spiritual development, he says.

“We were always in Sunday School, in Sunday worship service, in Sunday afternoon or evening service, at Vacation Bible School and at Bible study,” Taylor says.

Taylor says the copious teaching and preaching to which he’d been exposed led him to accept Jesus as his lord and savior while he was in junior high. Before long, he began to feel the call to preach, he adds. However, like Jonah, he shunned it.

“I ran from my call for at least 10 years as an adult before I said yes,” he confesses. “I was active in my church while I wrestled with the call – I served as choir director and a deacon – but I was facing in the wrong direction. An old preacher who knew what I was going through said, ‘If the Lord wants you, He’s going to get you, either the hard way or the easy way. Which way He gets you is up to you.’ So I said, ‘I’ll do it.’”

Today, Taylor is the pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Lafayette, Georgia, where he’s preached for 28 years. The parishioners asked him to preach once, then asked him to preach again, and before long he was Pastor Rheubin McGhee Taylor.

Taylor’s first sermon at Mt. Zion, which drew lessons from the story of Jonah, was titled “Running in the Wrong Direction.”

“It’s been rewarding,” Taylor continues. “(Mt. Zion is) a wonderful community of loving people who don’t know me as anything but their pastor. Up here, I’m known as Rheubin the lawyer, and Rheubin the politician, but I’m none of those things down there. I’m just Pastor Taylor.”

Taylor has pastored Mt. Zion nearly as long as he’s served as Hamilton County’s attorney. With 2025 approaching at a rapid clip, he’s contemplated retiring from the practice of law but has not decided, he says.

Instead, Taylor continues his unbroken 30-year stretch of public service, persists in the calling on his life, and spends the moments between these endeavors with his wife, Joyce Taylor, his three children from a previous marriage, and their progeny, which are growing in number.

“I see blessings wherever I look,” Taylor says. “Things turned out well.”