February 16, 1847 – Missouri Outlaws Education of Black Slaves

The issue of statehood for Missouri triggered a national controversy as Congress debated the future status of slavery in the land acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. The “Missouri Compromise” allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state, thus keeping the balance of slave and free states equal in Congress.


In 1825, Missouri passed laws imposing various restrictions on both enslaved and free blacks. The General Assembly also endeavored to prevent abolitionist influence on Missouri slaves, and in 1837 passed an act to “prohibit the publication, circulation, and promulgation of the abolition doctrines” with hefty fines and/or imprisonment stipulated for violators.

By 1840, nearly 13 percent of Missouri’s population was composed of enslaved black people, while free black people made up less than one percent of the state’s residents. Still, the mood in the country was volatile, and the white people of the state feared a possible rebellion [of their allegedly happy slaves].

On this day in history, the Missouri General Assembly passed a law stating:

… [n]o person shall keep or teach any school for the instruction of negroes or mulattoes, in reading or writing, in this State.” ‖ Act of February 16, 1847, § 1, 1847 Mo. Laws 103.

As explained on the website of the Missouri State Government:

An uneducated black population made white citizens feel more secure against both abolitionists and slave uprisings, although it probably did little to suppress the desire for freedom.”

The act also forbade the migration of free blacks to the state. The penalty for anyone violating any of the law’s provisions was a fine not to exceed five thousand dollars, a jail term not to exceed six months, or a combination of fine and jail sentence.

February 9, 1773 – Birthdate of William Henry Harrison

On this day in history, William Henry Harrison was born to a distinguished family in colonial Virginia. (Harrison was the last president born as a British subject before American Independence.) His father, Benjamin Harrison V, was a delegate to the Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of Independence. The senior Harrison was Governor of Virginia between 1781 and 1784, during and after the American Revolutionary War.

Harrison himself served as the first territorial congressional delegate from the Northwest Territory, Governor of the Indiana Territory, and as a U.S. representative and senator from Ohio. He gained national fame for leading U.S. forces against American Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, where he earned the nickname “Tippecanoe”. As a general in the subsequent War of 1812, he participated in the Battle of the Thames in 1813, which resulted in the death of Tecumseh, the Native American leader of the Shawnee.


After the war, Harrison moved to Ohio, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and then to the Senate. He was elected as 9th President of the United States in 1840, but died after just 32 days in office. The President gave the longest inaugural speech ever – one hour and 45 minutes – and went to bed that night with a cold. The cold lingered and worsened, and in a matter of weeks John Tyler became the 10th President, the first to reach that office upon the death of a sitting President.

Harrison was 68 years old when he was inaugurated, the oldest president to take office until Ronald Reagan in 1981. He was grandfather to Benjamin Harrison, who became the 23rd President of the United States.

Daguerreotype of William Henry Harrison, circa 1850 copy of 1841 original

Daguerreotype of William Henry Harrison, circa 1850 copy of 1841 original

February 5, 1917 – Immigration Act Passed Denying Entry to Immigrants from Eastern Asia & Pacific Islands

On this day in history, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917 by an overwhelming majority, overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s December 14, 1916 veto.

The 1917 Immigration Act, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, restricted the immigration of ‘undesirables’ from other countries, including:

All idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, insane persons; persons who have had one or more attacks of insanity at any time previously; persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority; persons with chronic alcoholism; paupers; professional beggars; vagrants; persons afflicted with tuberculosis in any form or with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease; …polygamists…anarchists… prostitutes and anyone involved with prostitution…” inter alia.

This very long and detailed legislation goes on to state that entry will also be denied to immigrants from the ‘Asiatic Barred Zone’–much of eastern Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Much of the Immigration Act is devoted to delineating penalties and fines for violating the restrictions set forth in the act. You can read it in its entirety here.


February 1, 1870 – First African American Man Elected to Serve on a State Supreme Court

Jonathan J. Wright, born in 1840 in Pennsylvania, saved up money by working for neighborhood farmers, and attended the Lancasterian University at Ithaca, in New York State. Afterward he returned to Pennsylvania and entered the office of a law firm, where he read law for two years, supporting himself by teaching. He subsequently read law for another year in the office of Judge Collins, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He applied for admission to the Bar but the committee refused to examine him because of racial prejudice.

In April 1865, Wright was sent by the American Missionary Society to Beaufort, South Carolina, as a teacher and laborer among the freed slaves. He remained in Beaufort until the Civil Rights Act passed and then returned to Montrose, Pennsylvania, and demanded an examination for the Bar. The Committee found him qualified. He was accepted on April 13, 1865, and was the first African American admitted to practice law in Pennsylvania.

In April 1866, Wright was appointed by General Oliver Otis Howard as head of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Beaufort, to be the legal adviser for the freedmen. In July 1868 he was elected to the Constitutional Convention of South Carolina. He was the convention vice-president and helped draft the judiciary section of the state constitution, which still holds today.

On this day in history, he was elected to the South Carolina Supreme Court, becoming the first African American to serve on a state supreme court. He held the position for seven years, until the white Democrats regained control of state government in 1877. Wright left the Court and entered into private practice in Charleston. He died in 1885.


January 24, 1993 – Death of Thurgood Marshall & Review of “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America” by Gilbert King

This masterful and riveting non-fiction book is about one of the bravest men in the history of this country, who died on this day in history. The book is also a useful corrective to anyone who thought (from reading The Help, for instance) that Jim Crow America wasn’t so bad. Or worse, those who thought that what was described in The Help was as bad as it got.


Gilbert King, who has written about U.S. Supreme Court history for both The Washington Post and The New York Times, argues that by the mid-1940’s, Thurgood Marshall, the grandson of a mixed-race slave, “was engineering the greatest social transformation in American since the Reconstruction era.” With a rhetorical facility (“benighted towns billeting hostile prosecutors”) that transcends the sobering subject matter, King allows you to forget you are reading non-fiction, but he never allows you to forget you are reading a genuine horror story.

Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues in the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP traveled throughout the South in the 1950’s, trying to fight white supremacy using the weapon of the Constitution. Marshall knew he could not win cases at the local or state level, so his goal became to establish firm grounds for appeals on record. If favorable rulings on equal protection could be obtained in higher courts, these precedents could then be used as additional building blocks for the rights of blacks.

The story of Marshall’s battle is told by a focus on one particular case, that of the Groveland Boys, which was, according to King:

…key to Marshall’s perception of himself as a crusader for civil rights, as a lawyer, willing to stand up to racist judges and prosecutors, murderous law enforcement officials, and the Klan in order to save the lives of young men falsely accused of capital crimes – even if it nearly killed him.”

And he was nearly killed a number of times.

Thurgood Marshall as a young man

The case of the Groveland Boys made national news at the time, and also had a significant impact upon the NAACP’s goals for future litigation. It took place in Florida, a state that somehow escaped the bad reputation attributed to Mississippi, Georgia, or Louisiana even though it had a higher per capital lynching rate. King notes:

In the postwar decade Florida would…prove to be a state with a boundless capacity for racial inhumanity, even by measure of the rest of the South…”

In Groveland, the Klan was populated by lawmen, and blacks had no hope of protection. So it was that when four young black men were arrested for the rape of a young white girl, in spite of the fact that no semen was found in her, or that two of the boys weren’t even in the area that night, a conviction and death penalty for all four boys was a foregone conclusion. Two of the young men were in the area, and they were World War II veterans, the object of particular rancor among white southerners since these veterans no longer were acting subservient enough.

Photo of Willis McCall taken in 1951, 15 minutes after he claimed to have been attacked by Sam Shepherd and Walter Irvin, handcuffed prisoners. He shot them both, killing Shepherd. Irvin claimed he shot them in cold blood, with no provocation.

Photo of Willis McCall taken in 1951, 15 minutes after he claimed to have been attacked by Sam Shepherd and Walter Irvin, handcuffed prisoners. He shot them both, killing Shepherd. Irvin claimed he shot them in cold blood, with no provocation.

The book describes the horrific events that surrounded this case, including the beatings of suspects and murder of three of them by the sheriff, who managed to remain in office until 1972 when he was finally suspended for kicking to death a mentally retarded black prisoner in his cell; the personal risks with their lives taken by all the defense lawyers; and the jaw-dropping injustice in the courtroom. It also enumerates the pressures on Marshall, who was simultaneously working on arguments for Brown v. Board of Education to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. While desperate stays-of-execution were filed in the Groveland Case, Marshall was forced to respond to the Supreme Court’s order that all five of the segregation cases coalesced into Brown v. Board had to be reargued in terms of the statutory intent of the equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment.

It’s an amazing story, and my respect for Marshall increased tremendously as a result of it.

Evaluation: This is a book that should be required reading. This horrifying, edge-of-your-seat tale really happened, and not that long ago. Its repercussions helped make the country what it is today. King, who unearthed FBI files that were under seal for sixty years, has done an outstanding job in telling this story which manages to be heart-breaking, inspiring, infuriating, and admirable all at once.

Thurgood Marshall in 1951

Thurgood Marshall in 1951

Rating: 5/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2012

Note: This book won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

Why Is Inauguration Day on January 20?

Inaugurations used to be held on March 4. This was the date used until 1934. As Garrett Epps points out in the January/February 2009 Atlantic:

This long delay nearly destroyed the nation after the 1860 election. During the disastrous “secession winter,” Abraham Lincoln waited in Illinois while his feckless predecessor, James Buchanan, permitted secessionists to seize federal arsenals and forts. By March 1861, when Lincoln took office, the Civil War was nearly lost, though officially it had not even begun.

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt crushed the incumbent, Herbert Hoover, but had to wait four months to take office. During that period, Hoover attempted to force the president-elect to abandon his proposals for economic reform. Roosevelt refused to commit himself, but the resulting uncertainty led the financial system to the brink of collapse.”

Obviously the long interregnum was not working out. The Twentieth Amendment, passed in 1933, cut the waiting period nearly in half. As the website infoplease explains:

The Twentieth Amendment, sometimes called the Lame Duck Amendment, was introduced to amend the Twelfth Amendment and shorten the time an outgoing President and member of Congress could be a “lame duck” -that is, a public official who continues to serve after an election and before a successor’s assumption of office. The Twentieth Amendment moved the President’s start date up to January 20 – two weeks after the Electoral College’s votes are certified by the president of the Senate.”

Assuming there is ever any question that must be resolved by a vote certification, this gives the winning candidate a short, but decent, time to prepare.

January 10, 1973 – The U.S. Supreme Court Decides United States v. Kras

On this day in history, the Supreme Court decided the question of whether an individual has a constitutional right to a bankruptcy discharge without paying the required filing fees. Kras had claimed he was simply too poor; he had no job and had children, one of whom had cystic fibrosis.

Justice Blackmun held for the 5-4 majority in United States v. Kras 409 U.S. 434 (1973) “There is no constitutional right to obtain a discharge of one’s debts in bankruptcy,” and Robert Kras was ordered to pay a $50 filing fee. He noted that the weekly payments of the fee amount to $1.28 and if the discharge would help Mr. Kras find a job, he should be able to pay that amount.

In an impassioned dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall took exception to the justices’ lack of appreciation of monetary difficulties for those who are impoverished. Marshall wrote:

I cannot agree with the majority that it is so easy for the desperately poor to save $1.92 each week over the course of six months. The 1970 Census found that over 800,000 families in the Nation had annual incomes of less than $1,000 or $19.23 a week. [U.S. Bureau of Census, Current Population Reports, series P-60, No. 80; U.S. Bureau of Census, Statistical
Abstract of the United States 1972, p. 323.] I see no reason to require that families in such straits sacrifice over 5% of their annual income as a prerequisite to getting a discharge in bankruptcy.

It may be easy for some people to think that weekly savings of less than $2 are no burden. But no one who has had close contact with poor people can fail to understand how close to the margin of survival many of them are. A sudden illness, for example, may destroy whatever savings they may have accumulated, and, by eliminating a sense of security, may destroy the incentive to save in the future. A pack or two of cigarettes may be, for them, not a routine purchase, but a luxury indulged in only rarely. The desperately poor almost never go to see a movie, which the majority seems to believe is an almost weekly activity. They have more important things to do with what little money they have — like attempting to provide some comforts for a gravely ill child, as Kras must do.

It is perfectly proper for judges to disagree about what the Constitution requires. But it is disgraceful for an interpretation of the Constitution to be premised upon unfounded assumptions about how people live.”

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall