The "Old" Black Corporate Bar: Durham's Wall Street, 1898-1971

Amos N. Jones, Campbell University School of Law


Over the last twenty years, eminent scholars such as David Wilkins have paid considerable attention to the “new black corporate bar” as a phenomenon worthy of treatment. This Article builds on that work by introducing a fascinating law practice reality that developed in a unique setting in the early 1900s American South. What if Wall Street had been black? What if its elite feeder institutions had been black? What if the black bar were, in a corporate economy of scale, relatively sizable? These questions might make for fascinating counter-factuals, if not for the concrete reality that such a community—albeit small—actually existed, expanded, and prospered in mid-century Durham, North Carolina. Coining the term “old black corporate bar” to stand in distinction to the “new black corporate bar,” the Article analyzes the world in which that exceptional and heretofore unexamined black bar germinated and influenced a relatively sophisticated legal landscape in a moderate, midsized southern city back-dropped by a laissez-faire white leadership class that proved progressive for racial relations.

Part I briefly sets forth the economic and social landscape during America’s Jim Crow era, identifying the three most prominent historical examples where observable black economies of scale rose and fell with the whims of white commercial insecurities. Part II presents the exceptional history of the African American community in Durham, North Carolina, including the founding of its “Black Wall Street.” Part III chronicles a watershed event in the histories of Durham and North Carolina: the establishment and rise of the North Carolina Central University School of Law, the first public institution to offer formal training for black lawyers in North Carolina. Part IV uncovers and analyzes the achievements of and challenges to the African American legal community in the “Black Wall Street” of Durham and discusses the establishment of African American lawyers’ professional associations nationally during this time. Part V, relying on historical examples of advocacy in the courts of North Carolina, establishes the old black corporate bar within the social engineering frameworks envisioned by legendary legal theorist and litigator Charles Hamilton Houston and others. Finally, a brief conclusion places this study’s examination in the contemporary discourse on blacks in the legal profession, joining the subjects of this Article to the group of newly empowered so-called “social engineers” treated in the recent scholarship in this area.