By Emily Matta.
We often forget to appreciate the bravery and tenacity of diverse individuals who entered the legal profession before us. Without these people, our profession would be less diverse and less representative of the communities we serve. While our state probably isn’t top of the list when you think diversity in the legal profession, Kansas was widely regarded as a particularly receptive venue for women and minority attorneys in its early history.
One 1898 newspaper reported that “Kansas has more successful women lawyers than any other western state,” listing Jennie Mitchell Kellogg, the assistant attorney general of Kansas from 1891 to 1893, as an example.1 Around that same time, Lutie Lytle, the first African American woman attorney in the West, returned to her hometown, Topeka, to open her own law practice. One newspaper reported that she chose Kansas “mainly on account of the fact that in the Sunflower State her sex will be less of a handicap than in other common-wealths.”2 Another trailblazing female attorney who grew up in this receptive atmosphere was Lyda Conley, the first Native American woman attorney in the United States.
Eliza (“Lyda”) Burton Conley, born between 1865 and 1869, was of Wyandot descent and grew up in the Kansas City, Kansas area.3 Conley graduated from Kansas City College of Law in 1902 and was admitted to the Missouri Bar shortly after.4 She was admitted to the Kansas Bar in 1910.5 Conley is best known for her fight to preserve the Wyandotte Huron Indian Cemetery where her parents and ancestors were buried.
In 1906, Congress passed the Indian Appropriation Bill, directing the Secretary of Interior to sell the land on which the cemetery sits and remove the remains of all persons interred there to the Wyandotte cemetery at Quindaro.6 Hearing this news, Conley and her sister, Lena, built a hut overlooking the cemetery and posted signs warning trespassers. Both women (quite illegally) armed themselves with shotguns and threatened anyone who tried to take over the property.7 Tis bought her time to file a petition for an injunction in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Kansas.8 Using her legal education, Conley fought her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. She could not argue as an attorney because no Washington attorney would vouch for her character and fitness to...