Undaunted: The Story of Colorado’s First Black Lawyers, 0222 COBJ, Vol. 51, No. 2 Pg. 14

PositionVol. 51, 2 [Page 14]

51 Colo.Law. 14

Undaunted: The Story of Colorado’s First Black Lawyers

No. Vol. 51, No. 2 [Page 14]

Colorado Lawyer

February, 2022



The Story of Colorado's First Black Lawyers


In a 1924 address for the Denver Bar Association's "Old Timers Day" dinner honoring lawyers who had practiced in Colorado for 50 years or more, attorney Charles S. Thomas paid homage to the early lawyers of Colorado as "the rugged pioneers of the profession, the leaders of their time.[1]But all of the lawyers and judges Thomas discussed were white, as though there were no African American lawyers in Colorado during its early days of statehood. In fact, Colorado welcomed its first Black lawyer back in 1883. Yet confusion persists about the exact identity of this pioneering attorney, even among Colorado lawyers. For example, Sam Cary—the namesake of Colorado's African American Bar Association—has often been referred to as the state's first Black attorney. But that distinction belongs to another individual: lawyer and Renaissance man Edwin Henry Hackley.

Edwin Henry Hackley

Hackley was born September 11, 1859, in Romeo, Michigan. His father, John A. Hackley, was a successful barber in Grand Ledge, Michigan, and his mother, Susan, was a former teacher. The second of three children, Edwin came down with a "lung fever" at the age of 3; he remained sickly and plagued by respiratory ailments the rest of his life. Young Hackley was deeply interested in music and writing, forming a quartet as a teenager and becoming an editor at a local paper, the Literary Review, at the age of 18. Hackley grew increasingly interested in politics and the possibility of a legal career, but his father wanted him to join the family barbershop.

Unbeknownst to his father, in 1879, Hackley began clerking at the office of a Grand Ledge lawyer, R.F. Pinkham, often reading law books at the barbershop when his father was absent. Against the senior Hackley's wishes, Edwin took the money he'd saved from barbering and enrolled at the Law Department (as it was then known) at the University of Michigan. He started on September 27, 1881, armed with a letter of recommendation from Pinkham's law partner J.L. McPeek, who lauded Hackley as "a young man of excellent habits, good principles, and possessed of rare capabilities."2

Once in Ann Arbor, Hackley threw himself into his stuthes and paid his way by barbering. But his formal education was interrupted when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, causing him to leave campus. Hackley persevered with his stuthes remotely, and he secured a "Certificate of Attendance" from the law school. He continued apprenticing as well, "reading the law" under the supervision of his mentor McPeek at McPeek's new Detroit law firm, from the fall of 1882 to the summer of 1883.3 Hackley took and passed the Michigan bar examination that summer. In search of an area that would be both better for his health and welcoming to African American attorneys, Hackley moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to begin his legal career.

However, the rough and tumble environment of Fort Smith (whose federal court had jurisdiction over much of the Indian Territory that eventually became Oklahoma) wasn't to Hackley's liking, and he soon relocated to Denver, hoping the mountain air would be better for his health. The Colorado Daily noted his application for admission to the bar, calling him "a bright and intelligent young man" who would "no doubt... be the first Colored lawyer ever admitted to the bar of this state."4 When Hackley was formally licensed by the Colorado Supreme Court on June 7,1883, The Denver Tribune also observed the historic arrival of "the first Colored gendeman ever admitted to the bar of Colorado," whose entry to the practicing ranks had been sponsored by prominent lawyer George C. Bates. The paper wrote:

This admission marks an era in the progress of this nation ... for about forty years ago the counsel who moved his admission saw from the windows of the Supreme Court in Washington a slave coffle of forty-two such young men, fastened like mules to a chain en route to Richmond for the auction block. Verily times have changed and we have changed with them.5

Despite the historic nature of his admission, Hackley struggled to make a living, and even briefly decamped to Kansas City, Kansas, during the winter of 1884 in hopes of making some money. Prospects in Denver brightened when he was offered the position of Denver county clerk. In May 1885, Hackley returned to Denver to accept the job, hoping it would provide some measure of financial security while serving as...

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