In keeping with the theme of highlighting extraordinary contributors to our Chattanooga legal history, we turn to Noah W. Parden, a Chattanooga lawyer, who was the first African-American to argue, as lead counsel, before the United States Supreme Court.
Parden’s chapter is a particularly difficult one to write as it reminds us of the shameful and perverse struggles that African Americans faced both in our society and before our courts in the early Twentieth Century.
Parden’s story is one that has been told several times, most notably in Mark Curriden’s and the late LeRoy Phillips, Jr.’s “Contempt of Court” and in Rita L. Hubbard’s “African Americans of Chattanooga, A History of Unsung Heroes,” both of which served as references for this article, and both of which I highly recommend to the reader. In particular, “Contempt of Court,” published 15 years ago, served to elevate the story of Parden and his most famous client, Ed Johnson, to a national level.
Relatively little is known about Parden’s early history. He was born in rural Floyd County, Ga., in 1865 to an unwed mother who was a former slave. He was orphaned at an early age and raised by missionaries. Likely as a result of his upbringing, Parden was devoutly religious. In 1885, he entered Howard High School in Chattanooga. Parden believed he’d been called to practice law, and during high school, he worked several jobs to save money for law school. In 1890, he entered Central Tennessee College of Nashville. He later graduated as the valedictorian of his class, obtained his Tennessee law license and returned to Chattanooga to practice.
Upon his return to Chattanooga in 1894, Parden partnered with fellow African American attorney Styles L. Hutchins. Hutchins was several years older than Parden and was himself a successful attorney and statesman. Hutchins had been the first African American admitted to practice law in Georgia. In 1881, Hutchins moved to Chattanooga, as he thought it possessed a more favorable and progressive business climate for African Americans. In 1886, Hutchins managed to orchestrate one of the largest upsets in Tennessee political history when he defeated one of the most popular Democrats of the day in a race for the Tennessee House of Representatives, making him the first African American to serve in the Tennessee State Legislature.
With Hutchins as his mentor, Parden developed a very successful practice. Among other things, he began to take cases for African American clients against insurance companies that had developed a practice of selling small policies to African American individuals and businesses and then denying claims based on the supposition that the policyholders would not have the financial wherewithal to fund litigation. To help these clients, Parden began the practice of taking cases on a contingency fee basis, a relatively unheard of practice at the time. Parden began winning these cases against insurers on a regular basis before all white juries. He also handled successfully handled trials and appeals of numerous criminal cases brought against African Americans. By 1906, his reputation had grown to the point where he was held in high esteem by other members of the Chattanooga bar and thought by many to be one of Chattanooga’s finest attorneys.
On Jan. 23, 1906, a young white woman, Nevada Taylor, was sexually assaulted on her way home from work. Although Taylor indicated that she did not see her attacker, local papers began to report that she’d been brutally attacked by an African American. As the news spread of the violent attack spread, the residents of Chattanooga began to call for the immediate arrest of the perpetrator. With a public election looming in the near future, local officials felt intense pressure to satisfy the public’s calls for immediate justice. Despite having an alibi supported by numerous witnesses, Ed Johnson was arrested and accused of committing the crime. Public cries for Johnson’s execution commenced immediately. After his arrest, an angry mob stormed the county jail, looking for Johnson, and was turned away by authorities with the promise that Johnson would be made to pay for his crimes.
On Jan. 29, 1906, Circuit Court Judge Sam McReynolds appointed three white attorneys, Robert T. Cameron, W.G.M. Thomas, and former judge Lewis Shepherd to defend Johnson at trial – a trial that Judge McReynolds indicated would start in ten days without delay. Judge McReynolds, aware of the public’s growing unrest, admonished the attorneys to neither seek a continuance nor a change of venue, as both would be summarily denied.
After a three-day trial with a dozen witnesses testifying that Johnson was in a local saloon the entire evening of the assault, and with the victim refusing to swear that Johnson was her attacker, Johnson was found guilty on Feb. 9, 1906 and was sentenced to be hanged on March 13, 1906. The attorneys defending Johnson had been warned several times that, if they did anything to delay the hanging, Johnson would be lynched by an angry mob. Because the Tennessee Supreme Court was not in session, any appeal of the verdict would not be heard until the court’s next term, which would indefinitely delay Johnson’s hanging. So, a choice was put before Johnson: proceed to an orderly hanging at the hands of the Sheriff or appeal and most likely be set upon by an angry lynch mob. Faced with these options, Johnson opted to forego his right to an appeal.
Parden had watched the events leading up to the trial with a belief that Johnson was likely the culprit. Lewis Shepherd had originally approached Parden about joining the defense team for Johnson, but Parden declined due to the divisiveness of the case. Parden revered Shepherd, who was widely thought to be one of the best lawyers in Tennessee, as Parden had watched Shepherd zealously defend indigent African American clients. Likewise, Shepherd had seen Parden triumph in seemingly unwinnable cases. Over time, the two lawyers developed a close friendship. Although he would not take on Johnson’s defense, Parden did agree to help Shepherd track down some of the alibi witnesses needed for Johnson’s defense and also agreed to conduct some limited investigation to determine whether another possible culprit might be identified. During the course of his work, Parden became increasingly convinced that the authorities had the wrong man.
On the Friday evening after Johnson’s death sentence was announced, Johnson’s father met with Parden and begged him to take up his son’s appeal. Reluctantly, Parden agreed to consider the request. Hutchins was in the next room and overheard Parden’s conversation. Hutchins pressed Parden to accept the representation. Hutchins cited Luke 12:48 to the devoutly religious Parden: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” After an evening spent dissecting the procedural improprieties of the case with Hutchins, Parden decided to take the case. The next day, Parden called upon his friend, Shepherd to assist with the appeal. Shepherd warned Parden that there would certainly be consequences for their involvement, but nonetheless agreed to assist Parden and Hutchins.
On the following Monday, Parden and Hutchins attempted to file a motion for new trial – which had to be filed within three days of the verdict under local rules. Judge McReynolds instructed Parden and Hutchins to return on Tuesday to file the motion. The lawyers confirmed with Judge McReynolds that he would follow his usual practice of not counting Sunday in the three-day time period. However, when they showed up on Tuesday morning to file the motion as instructed, Judge McReynolds sustained the prosecutor’s objection to the filing of the motion as being untimely under the local rules. A subsequent attempt to obtain a supersedeas writ from the Tennessee Supreme Court was denied on March 3, 1906, due largely in part to an alleged failure to timely file a motion for new trial with the trial court.
After their defeat before the Tennessee Supreme Court, the defense team decided that their sole remedy lay in the federal Habeas Corpus Act of 1867, which permitted a federal court to issue writs of habeas corpus “in all cases where any person may be restrained of his or her liberty in violation of the constitution, or any treaty or law of the United States.” The Act was originally passed by Congress during Reconstruction to protect freed slaves and Union sympathizers from illegal persecution by state authorities. However, by 1906, the Act had been judicially narrowed to instances where the state court lacked jurisdiction over the defendant, or where the state court had deprived the defendant of due process of law or equal protection. One primary hurdle with seeking relief under the Act was the fact that state court due process rights were virtually unrecognized at the time. Fundamental rights such as the right to effective counsel, the right against self-incrimination, and the right against illegal search and seizure had not yet been held to apply to state court proceedings. After diligent research, Parden found one potential foothold under the equal protection clause that he felt afforded his client’s best chance at obtaining a writ of habeas corpus. In an 1879 case, Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303 (1879), the United States Supreme Court found that it was a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to intentionally exclude African Americans from a jury pool during the criminal trial of an African American defendant. In 1906, approximately one-third of Chattanooga’s population was African American. Still, there had been no African Americans in the jury pool summoned for the Johnson trial (or any other prior trial). Parden surmised that there was an official policy in place to ensure that no African Americans found their way onto Hamilton County juries.
On March 10, 1906, Parden argued his petition for a writ of habeas corpus to United States District Court Judge C.D. Clark in Knoxville, Tenn. Judge Clark heard proof from both sides and denied the petition, finding that the District Court had no power to intervene in a state court proceeding under existing law. Johnson would need to look to the Supreme Court or Congress to recognize such a right. Judge Clark did, however, issue a stay of execution of ten days (until March 23, 1906) so that a petition could be brought before the United States Supreme Court.
Parden and Hutchins quickly contacted Washington lawyer Emanual D.M. Hewlett, who agreed to assist with a petition to the high court. Hewlett had served as co-counsel in a prior Supreme Court case and had been sworn in as a member of the Supreme Court bar, although he’d never actually served as lead counsel or argued to the Court.
Over the next few days, while preparing the necessary documents for filing with the Court, Parden’s office was set afire and bullets were fired through his home. To his dismay, Parden found little solace or support in the African American community. The pastor of Parden’s church castigated him for promoting unrest, and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. DuBoise spoke with Parden over the telephone and openly questioned Parden’s ability to make an effective argument in a case of such importance. Still, Parden persevered, and while Hutchins raised the money necessary to file the petition, Parden obtained the transcript from the hearing in front of Judge Clark and put the finishing touches on the pleadings.
On March 15, 1906, Parden boarded the train to Washington D.C. The next day, Parden and Hewlett filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus. Back in Chattanooga, local officials continued to attempt to placate the public discord that had grown since the postponement of Johnson’s execution. They assured all that Parden’s efforts would bear no fruit and the execution would go forward as scheduled. However, on Saturday evening, March 17, 1906, unbeknownst to the local press, Justice John M. Harlan agreed to allow Parden ten minutes to argue his petition in chambers. In those ten minutes, Parden pointed out the violations of due process and the 14th Amendment that had taken place during Johnson’s trial. Parden did his best to convince Justice Harlan that the trial was simply a pre-ordained proceeding designed to placate public emotion and was not a fair trial of the guilt of Johnson.
After completing the hearing, Parden boarded the train and left Washington without knowing whether his arguments to Judge Harlan had been of any success. Parden arrived in Chattanooga on March 19, 1906 to find a jubilant Hutchins, who met him at the train station waiving a March 18, 1906 telegram advising that the Supreme Court had allowed the appeal of the habeas corpus case of Johnson. The granting of the appeal immediately stayed the execution of Johnson by operation of federal law.
However, Parden’s elation and satisfaction in a job well-done soon turned to abject disappointment and horror. On the evening of March 19, 1906, just hours after Parden’s return from Washington, an angry mob of approximately 20 people removed Johnson from his cell at the Hamilton County jail and heinously murdered him. Contemporaneous newspaper accounts revealed that the mob was given free access to the jail for two hours without any intervention from Sheriff Shipp or his deputies. Sheriff Shipp himself had waited in the bathroom of the jail and did nothing to suppress the mob. Although almost 80 persons claimed to be witnesses, no participants in the mob were identified.
When the news of the events surrounding Johnson’s death reached Justice Harlan and the other members of the Supreme Court, they were outraged, as was President Theodore Roosevelt. The events made the front page of The New York Times on March 21, 1906 under the headline, “Lynching Mob to Feel Supreme Court’s Anger.” A federal investigation ensued and investigators, with the help of Parden, found that there had been a conspiracy between Sheriff Shipp, his deputies, and leaders of the mob to execute Johnson. For his part, Shipp openly blamed the interference of the Supreme Court for the mob violence. On May 28, 1906, Shipp, six of his deputies, and 19 members of the mob were charged with contempt of court. The defendants were the first and only criminal defendants to be tried before the Supreme Court. Ultimately, Shipp, one deputy and four mob members were found guilty of contempt.
Parden’s attempt to obtain a writ of habeas corpus for Johnson and the subsequent trial of Sheriff Shipp and his alleged co-conspirators are seen by many legal scholars as a watershed moment and the beginning of the willingness of federal courts to exercise their jurisdiction to address racially-based injustice at the state level.
In the aftermath of the Johnson’s murder, both Parden and Hutchins moved their families from Chattanooga. Parden eventually settled in East St. Louis, where he successfully practiced law for many more years. A man of many firsts, Parden was the first African American lawyer in St. Clair County, the first African American assistant attorney general, and the first African American assistant prosecutor in St. Louis. In 1926, the Daily Journal in East St. Louis proclaimed that Parden was “perhaps the best known Negro lawyer in America.” Parden has received posthumous honors from both the State of Georgia (where his portrait hangs in halls of the Georgia Supreme Court) and the State of Illinois for his contributions to and personal sacrifices for the sake of his profession. It is appropriate that he be similarly remembered here – the place where he made his greatest contribution and sacrifice.