Pine Bluff lawyer, politician fought dawn of Jim Crow laws in state
John Gray Lucas was born on March 11, 1864, in Marshall, Texas, to George and Bettie Lucas. As a child, Lucas moved to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where he attended public school. He attended the Branch Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). He entered the merchandising business a few months before his graduation, so it took him two additional years to earn his college degree.
From 1884 to 1887, he attended the Boston University School of Law. Upon his graduation, he was the only African American in a class of 52 students and one of only seven students who graduated with honors.
In December of 1886, Lucas was interviewed by the Boston Daily Globe about the racial conditions in Pine Bluff. Lucas listed a number of African Americans serving in political offices and high positions back in Pine Bluff. At the end of the interview, he compared the conditions of African Americans in Massachusetts with those in Pine Bluff, wondering why “more colored young men from the North did not make Arkansas their home. It is an inviting field for them and a grand opportunity to make something of themselves.”
Shortly after his graduation, Lucas moved back to Arkansas, where he passed the state bar exam with a perfect score. He was soon named assistant prosecuting attorney for Pine Bluff and Jefferson County.
After noticing his superb command of the law, Judge H.C. Caldwell appointed him commissioner for the U.S. Circuit Court, Eastern District of Arkansas. He was also elected to the Republican state and county central committees and served on the Republican 11th Judicial District Central Committee.
In the fall of 1890, Lucas was elected as a state representative from Jefferson County. He also became the leader of the Legislature’s 12 Black lawmakers just as Jim Crow segregation laws began flooding the South. In February 1891, Lucas delivered a rousing address denouncing J.N. Tillman’s segregated coach bill, which called for the segregation of Arkansas railroad cars.
Although the bill was easily passed by the Democratic majority, Lucas’ speech impressed his white adversaries. Democratic newspapers, the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat, praised Lucas as “a fluent debater,” “unquestionably the ablest and most brilliant representative of his race in the state, and it might truthfully be (for his age) in the South,” and “a born leader of his people” for whom in 1891 there was “certainly a bright future in store.”
By 1893, Lucas had left Arkansas and relocated to Chicago, as the state Legislature enacted more and more segregationist Jim Crow laws that limited the voting rights and political power of African Americans. He set up a profitable law practice in a series of luxurious suites at 88 Dearborn Ave. in the downtown Chicago Loop.
Lucas appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court on four separate occasions, becoming known as an expert in criminal law. By the early 20th century, the local African American press referred to him as a “black millionaire.” After becoming active in Republican politics, he was appointed assistant corporation counsel and first assistant recorder of deeds in Cook County. During the Great Depression though, Lucas, like many other African Americans, left the Republican Party to become a Democrat.
In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him assistant U.S. attorney, a position he held until his death. On Oct. 27, 1944, Lucas died in Chicago. He is buried there in Lincoln Cemetery. At the time of his death, his wife, Olive Gulliver Lucas, and daughter Elaine Louise Lucas were still alive while his son was not.
This article is from ExplorePineBluff.com, a program of the Pine Bluff Advertising and Promotion Commission. Sources: www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net — John Gray Lucas (1864–1944); www.wikipedia.org — J. Gray Lucas; and www.camdenarknews.com — History Minute: John Gray Lucas. Image courtesy: EncyclopediaofArkansas.net/Arkansas State Archives.
Ninfa O. Barnard wrote this article for ExplorePineBluff.com.