13 Feb John R. Byrd: Indiana’s First African American Lawyer
John R. Byrd: Indiana’s First African American Lawyer
By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian
A one-time Noblesville resident had a very unique distinction. However, very little is known about him and his activities. John R. Byrd was the first African American to be admitted to the Indiana Bar to practice law in Indiana and to argue cases in Indiana courts. While this was an important breakthrough, his life took some unfortunate turns and he was never able to fulfill his potential.
He is difficult to track because his name was spelled “Bird” and “Byrd” in various places. Supposedly, he was born in Indiana around 1855 and may have been connected to the Roberts family of Roberts Settlement. He was first mentioned on October 16, 1874, when C. A. Roberts and Benjamin Roberts opened a new barbershop on second floor of the Austin Drug Store on the east side of the Noblesville square. The building is now gone, but was at the present site of the Noblesville Antique Mall. It was possibly a building seen in the 1872 photograph of a political rally. Two of the employees at the barber shop were Jim Thompson and John Byrd, of whom the Noblesville Ledger newspaper said, “Their equals are not in Noblesville.”
In January of 1875, a customer gave the newspaper a description of a visit to the barber shop:
“While in Noblesville the other day, I called upon A. P. [sic] Roberts for a little barbering, and he put John Bird [sic] to work on my head and face. The transformation was incredible. By golly, I didn’t know myself. Now look boys, if you haven’t good shaped heads, go there and let Bird shape it right for he can do it a la mode.”
Barbering was one of the few jobs available to African Americans at this point in history, much like being a housekeeper or a porter on a Pullman railroad car. Although Noblesville had people like Stephen Roberts, a successful African American livestock broker, most African Americans could only get jobs in menial positions.
Byrd married Tennessee Armstrong, a Westfield woman also known as Fannie or Tillie, on January 23, 1875. During that year, Byrd apparently tried to set up his own barber shop, then closed it up and partnered with John Roper in August, then partnered with Ab Roberts in December, and then disappeared.
Nothing can be found on him until 1878. He had moved to Indianapolis and was arrested for living in adultery with a woman named Mattie Brooks in August. However, the major news was his being admitted to the Indiana Bar in December.
The Indianapolis People newspaper said:
“John R. Byrd, a colored lawyer, was admitted to practice in the Marion County Superior Court. He is the first colored man admitted to the bar of Indiana. Let him soar!”
This was reprinted in the Noblesville Ledger on December 13, which stated that he had worked as a barber in town and had married a local woman. It went on to say:
“The marriage proved an unhappy one, and about two years ago John, “rather under the weather”, went to Indianapolis and determined to do better. He began his study of law, worked hard to achieve his present distinction, and we bespeak for him a fair show and abundant success in his new role.”
The first case that Byrd argued was on December 12. He defended a woman named Mollie Brown against a charge of keeping a house of prostitution. This was noted in the Indianapolis News as a first in the state.
In March of 1879, Byrd came back to Noblesville to visit friends and family. The local paper mentioned that he used to be a barber and that Ab Roberts was his uncle. It added that he worked in the law office of Ryman & Pringle, and commented that “by his pluck and energy, [he] has fitted himself for practice.”
Curiously, his life seemed to take a bad turn after this. He was arrested in May for assaulting a woman named Josephine Fry with a trunk strap. Then, in December, he was arrested with Mattie Brooks for stealing a cloak from a second-hand store. He was tried and convicted, and sentenced to a year in Michigan City State Prison.
Both the 1880 census and prison intake records state that he was 25 years old and was still legally married to Fannie Armstrong. The prison records also state that his family was still alive, with his mother, three half-brothers, and one half-sister living in Kankakee, Indiana. His father lived somewhere in Minnesota
He was discharged from the state prison on November 27, 1880, and disappeared from the public record. His wife Fannie remarried in 1882. Mattie Brooks served her time and was released, dying in 1936.
There is a question of how Byrd should be remembered – as a lawyer or a criminal? While the reports of his relationships with women seem to show questionable behavior, we don’t know how much this may have been exaggerated by the newspapers. The papers showed a great deal of animus against him because of his race, at one point calling him a “low down “smart” n——”. We also don’t know about the validity of his arrests. It may have actually been a pattern of harassment by law enforcement, which was common at the time.
Because of the prejudices of the era, a prison record may not be proof of a crime. Other African American leaders were very questionably convicted of crimes in this period. Notable among them were Robert Smalls, a Civil War hero and congressman, and Henry Ossian Flipper, the first African American graduate of West Point. The convictions were used as a way to ruin their credibility.
Today, many sources recognize people such as James T. V. Hill and C. R. Richardson as the first African American lawyers in Indiana, while John R. Byrd has been forgotten. Whatever choices or mistakes he may have made in his personal life, he did have a significant achievement and should be a part of the permanent record.