I Shall Talk to My Own People': The Intersectional Life and Times of Lutie A. Lytle

Author:Taja-Nia Y. Henderson
Position:Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School
_SETIWA13.DOTM (DO NOT DELETE) 7/11/2017 1:15 PM
“I Shall Talk to My Own People”: The
Intersectional Life and Times of Lutie A.
Taja-Nia Y. Henderson
In 1898, recent law graduate Lutie A. Lytle—a black woman born to formerly
enslaved parents—accepted a position as instructor of law at a law school in Tennessee.
In doing so, she became the first black woman law professor in the world. Over the
following four decades, despite suffering persistent racial and gender di scrimination , Lytle
committed her life and work to, in her words, “mak[ing] a sincere and earnest effort to
improve [black Americans'] condition as citizens.” This Article details Lytle's life as an
advocate, activist, and attorney, and argues that her work places her squarely within
the ranks of the black feminist intelligentsia that emerged in the late nineteenth century.
In addition, the Article highlights Lytle's disappearance from public life (and the public
record) in the early 1940s, and suggests that her pioneering career warrants additional
research into her final years.
I. INTRODUCTION ........................................................................... 1984
II. THE LYTLES OF MURFREESBORO ................................................. 1986
III. EXODUS ...................................................................................... 1990
AND LEGAL EDUCATION .............................................................. 1996
LUTIE A. LYTLE AND LAW PRACTICE ........................................... 2001
VI. CONCLUSION .............................................................................. 2013
Professor of Law, Rutgers La w School.
1984 IOWA LAW REVIEW [Vol. 102:1983
In the fall of 1898, the Chicago Tribune hailed Lutie A. Lytle of Topeka as
the “only female law instructor in the world.”1 Notwithstanding this purported
shattering of the legal academy’s glass ceiling, Lytle’s accomplishments—her
path to the professoriate, and her career in the years following her
appointment to the faculty of a Nashville law school—have been largely lost
to historians of legal education.2 She is not among those honored or
commemorated by our profession, and her name is largely unknown beyond
a small circle of interest.3 The biographical sketch that follows fills this
scholarly gap through an examination of Lytle as a historical figure, using
contemporary newspaper accounts and other primary source material to
provide context for her achievements and linking her life to previously
understudied legal, political and social movements.
As a genre, biography seeks to use the life of the individual to tell a larger
story about the collective.4 Feminist biography—probably best understood as
both subgenre and method—has the same goals, but moves gender “to the
center of the analysis.”5 This methodology asks not only how gender as a social
category has impacted the lives of historical actors, but also how the unequal
distribution of power resulting from existing gender hierarchies has
influenced epistemologies of scholarly inquiry.6
A biographical sketch of Lutie A. Lytle, a woman coming of age in the
second half of the nineteenth century, warrants such treatment. Lytle’s career
in the law was certainly impacted by gender as she was among the earliest
cadre of women lawyers in the nation.7 As a student, she was the only woman
1. Personals, CHI. DAILY TRIB., Nov. 5, 1898, at 6.
2. Myths abound, including the claim that she was the first black woman lawyer. See, e.g.,
132 CONG. REC. 890 (1986) (“Lutie Lytle was the first black woman lawyer in America. ”).
Another incorrect claim is that Lytle taught law for several years (when, in fact, she taught during
a single academic year). See Pioneering Facts About Black Women Lawyers and Law Teachers, in REBELS
IN LAW: VOICES IN HISTORY OF BLACK WOMEN LAWYERS 277, 278 (J. Clay Smith Jr. ed., 1998)
(“Lutie A. Lytle taught for about four years” ).
3. At the second annual gathering of the Black Female Faculty Summer Writing Workshop in
Denver in 2008, attendees voted to rename the gathering in honor of Lytle. Memorandum about the
Lutie A. Lytle Black Women Law Faculty Writing Workshop (2016), http://law.uiowa.edu/sites/law.
4. See Barbara W. Tuchman, Biography as a Prism of History, in TELLING LIVES: THE
BIOGRAPHERS ART 132, 134 (Marc Pachter ed., 1979) (describing biography as “enco mpass[ing]
the universal in the particular”).
LIVES OF MODERN AMERICAN WOMEN 1, 7 (Sara Alpern et al. eds., 1992).
6. See id. at 13 ( “[F]eminist biography not only expands our knowled ge about women’s
lives but alters the frameworks within which we interpret historical experience.”).
7. See Cecily Barker McDaniel, “Fearing I Shall Not Do My Duty to My Race if I Remain
Silent”: Law and Its Call to African American Women, 1872 –1932, at 12 (2007) (unpublished
Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University) (on file with author) (observing “that from 1872 t o
enrolled in the Law Department of Central Tennessee College.8 When she
was appointed as an instructor at the College, moreover, she was the only
woman among the law school’s faculty.9 As a woman of African descent born
during Reconstruction, however, Lytle (and her story) “cannot be captured
wholly by” a methodology that moves only gender to the center.10 The
intersection (or overlap) of Lytle’s identities as a woman of color and the
daughter o f former slaves requi res that gender and race (and arguably, status
and class) move to the center. In other words, a biographical sketch of Lytle’s
life cannot privilege gender in isolation; it must also grapple with the
persistence of race, racism, and the myriad legacies of chattel slavery in the
subject’s world.
Accordingly, this Essay pursues a sketch of Lytle’s life that might best be
understood as “womanist” in its approach.11 In her life and work, Lytle
exhibited a maturity beyond her years by boldly pursuing knowledge “in
1930, twenty-two black female lawyers can be identified from census records” and discussing th e
role of Lytle and other women that entered the legal profession around the same time); see also
infra notes 108–28 and accompanying text.
8. See infra note 98 and accompanying text.
9. See McDaniel, supra note 7, at 109 ( “[S]he joined Central’s faculty, becoming . . . the
first female law professor of a chartered school in the world.”).
10. Kimberle Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence
Against Women of Color, 43 STAN. L. REV. 1241, 1244 (1991).
11. Alice Walker coined the term in 1988, defining “woman ist” as:
1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A
black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to
female children, “You acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually ref erring to
outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and
in greater depth than is considered “go od” for one. Interested in grown-up doings.
Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk
expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.
ALICE WALKER, IN SEARCH OF OUR MOTHERS GARDENS, at xi (1983) (emphasis in original).
Walker continues:
2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates
and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural
counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual
men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire
people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health.
Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and
our cousins are white, beige, and black?” A ns.: “Well, you know the colored race is
just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented. ” Traditionally capable,
as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves
with me.” Reply: “I t wouldn’t be the first time.”
3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food
and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
4. Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender.
Id. at xi–xii.

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