The Colored American clipping

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Settle, Josiah Thomas, 1850-1915; African American lawyers; Memphis (Tenn.)

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A Bright Barrister.

Colored Lawyers Look out for 70,000 People.

The Career of Hon. J. T. Settle, the Leading Attorney of Memphis Tenn. - His Early Struggles - His Victory Over Difficulties - A Learned Lawyer - A Gifted Orator and Profound Thinker, He Has Been Many Times Honored.

MEMPHIS, TENN., Special. The legal business of the seventy-five thousand Negroes in Memphis is attended to by twelve lawyers of the race. The wealthiest and most eloquent orator of the entire number is the Hon. Josiah T. Settle. During his visit to Memphis just after his victory in the Spanish-American war Admiral George Dewey was received and entertained by the most prominent and well-to-do members of the race, at the Main street auditorium. In a speech of welcome in which he named the admiral, the Sailor Statesman, Mr. Settle proved himself to be entitled to a place among the famous orators of his country. To say that his address was a masterpiece in point of literary production as well as oratory, would be describing it in a very mild degree.

Mr. Settle was born in East Tennessee, September 30, 1850. He prepared for, entered college and completed his Freshman year at Oberlin College. He was one of the four Negro boys of a class numbering fifty, yet he was chosen as one of the eight orators to represent his class when they entered the college, an honor much desired by all students. After graduating from Howard University Mr. Settle graduated from the law department of Howard University also. He was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, but having decided to make his chosen profession his life's work, and believing he could best serve his people where resided the greatest number, he left the District of Columbia in the spring of 1875 and located in North Mississippi, where he at once engaged in the practice of law.

In 1876 he was a delegate to the National Republican convention and was the only delegate from Mississippi who voted for the nomination of Roscoe Conkling for President, and continued to vote for him as long as his name was before the convention. Mr. Settle was elector for the State at large on the Hayes and Wheeler ticket, and in 1880 he was presidential elector on the Garfield and Arthur ticket. When a resident of Mississippi, there was no man that stood higher in the estimation of all classes than he. He was as popular with one race as he was with the other. Mr. Settle was never invited to make a public address that he did not give his people good sound advice.

The Colored Bar Association, which met at Greenville, Miss. some years ago, invited him to deliver an address, from which the following is taken:

"Gentlemen of the Colored Bar Association of Mississippi: I have listened with pleasure and profit to your excellent addresses on different legal topics and I can pay you no higher compliment than to say you are an honor to the profession. I look upon this meeting as the dawn of a new era in the history of our race. It is no new thing for us to meet and participate in the assemblages of men, in fact, one of the misfortunes of our people has been too great love for meetings and conventions of every kind, out of which little if any permanent good has ever accrued to us. The emotional side of our nature has ever been too often used as instruments in the hands of others. Some persons unwisely think that all that is necessary to constitute a successful lawyer is an oily tongue, a vivid imagination and a great capacity to lie. In fact, some people profess to think that lawyer and liar are synonymous terms. Such persons it is needless for me to say, know but little of the law, and still less of the lawyer. They forget, or do not know, that the contests of lawyers are not "ex-parte." They confront each other before learned and astute courts and in the presence of the world, where lies and frauds have the least chance of success and where exposure will usually prove fatal to a cause. No lawyer can build a splendid professional career upon an insufficient education any more than he can build a monument of stone upon a foundation of sand. We are citizens of this country by nativity, not by choice or adoption, and here, under God's providence, we mean to stay and strike glad hands with all lovers of justice work out our own destinies, and vie with every other nationality in developing the material resources of our beloved country. We should prepare ourselves by every energy of mind and soul to solve the problem put to us by those by whom we are surrounded and with whom we live, viz, 'The survival of the fittest.' Citizens by nativity, we have no other land to love. To this we have given our labor for more than one hundred years. In defense of her flag we have given our lives; to sustain her integrity we have contributed whatever was demanded of us. At all times we have been faithful and reliable. We have never been numbered among our country's enemies. We have never been found in the ranks of socialists and anarchists in their attack upon social order and our free institutions. Yet we have lived under a condition of things at times unequalled in the history of civilized government."

From beginning to end this was one of the grandest addresses ever delivered. He not only tells the aspiring young Negro lawyer to first acquire a college education, thusly fitting himself to compete with the best lawyers of his time, but almost in the same breath he tells this nation that in as much as it has forced our men to keep the flag from trailing in the dust in every war in which it has engaged, it should be discontented until every citizen is protected at home as well as abroad.

About seventeen years ago Mr. Settle became a resident of Memphis. Immediately on his arrival, he was appointed assistant Attorney General of Shelby County, Tenn. which includes the city of Memphis, the largest and most flourishing city in the State. Those were warm days in politics with Gen. G. P. M. Turner, one of the greatest orators and lawyers in the South, as Attorney General and the Hon. J. T. Settle assistant Attorney General. The court house was always crowded to hear their speeches. The papers could not understand why a white Democrat could appoint a Negro Republican assistant Attorney General in a Democratic city, but General Turner recognized ability and stood by his appointee throughout his term. During his term of office Mr. Settle covered himself with glory more than once. He served with honor to himself and race, since which time he has been recognized by everybody in Memphis, from the highest judge to the lowest citizen, as being one of the best lawyers, irrespective of race practicing in the courts of Tennessee.

A few months ago, while in Washington, Mr. Settle was admitted to practice law before the United States Supreme Court. It was in the capacity of Assistant Attorney General that your correspondent first heard Mr. Settle speak. After making a great speech for the prosecution, Mr. Settle took his seat and was followed by one of the most prominent lawyers in the city, and who is now one of the judges. This lawyer commenced his speech in the following manner: "May it please the court, the Attorney General has not referred to any law in the case. He comes here relying on his eloquence to win." This brought forth a quick retort from Mr. Settle, which caused the attorney for the defense to make an apology. The case was continued and finally decided in Mr. Settle's favor. Since his residence in Memphis his career as a lawyer has been in direct keeping with his Greenville speech. There is no more high-toned lawyer in the city than he. Not long ago a big lot of stolen goods were found in the possession of a citizen who said he brought them from a peddler, who could not be found. The goods was the property of a leading furnishing store. Mr. Settle was called upon to take the case. Being prompted by a desire to benefit his client and not to grasp after the fee he advised a compromise, giving as his reason, to fight such a case would be expense for nothing and a probable sentence. Following his advice, the store was visited, a compromise was arranged and the public were none the wiser. Innumerable instances of this kind, showing the greatness of the man, could be cited. He invariably advises his client to engage in lawsuits when they cannot do otherwise. The old adage, that in "raising men up we also lift ourselves," is certainly shown in the life of Mr. Settle. In showing that he is not so much interested in fees as he is in benefitting his fellow man he has amassed a comfortable fortune. This is a plain case of the "office looking for the man." Mr. Settle has a law practice of five thousand dollars a year. His income from rents on his property, all of which is located in the most aristocratic portion of the city, is twelve hundred dollars. Thirty or forty thousand dollars would be a moderate estimate of his wealth.

When asked about the prospects of the race, Mr. Settle said, "If every man would do his duty in deeds and not in so much talk, the time would come when our race would be respected equal to any in the land." Continuing, he said:

"I see a problem within the race as serious as the one between the black and white men - it is the bad feeling that seems to exist between the blacks and the mulattoes. God made us all and He loves us all, and we should love each other and work together to the advantage of our national cause. The enemy is too great for members of the race to stop on the wayside and quarrel. The conditions in this country are such that every person known to have Negro blood in his veins, even though he may be as white as the whitest Anglo-Saxon is treated in the same manner as the blackest African. The interests of the blacks and mulattoes are inseparably one. Their sympathies should be for each other."

It is safe to say if the race was represented by such men as the subject of this sketch, in a few years the race problem would take the wings of a dove.

One of the greatest troubles in the South is a lack of manhood on the part of our able men to even speak in a manly way for their rights. To illustrate what I mean, let me invite your attention to the following facts: Several months ago, during the discussion of the Jim-Crow street car law for Memphis, a meeting of Negroes was called at the Howe Institute to take action. A few wanted to issue a proclamation to the Negroes of Memphis to discontinue the practice of riding for pleasure, and in no case ride unless in cases of absolute necessity. The meeting was controlled by a majority of "Expediency Policy" men, who argued that such actions may be right, but it was not expedient to do so. After wasting a lot of gas and big speeches for several nights doing nothing, they adjourned sine die. There never was a time when the race needed men to speak out for its rights more than now. That you may know the kind of man the subject of this sketch is let me recall an incident that happened in his office a few months ago. While sitting there listening to pleasant reminiscences of his school days, the interesting and instructive conversation was interrupted by the incoming of a representative of the "Memphis Morning News," who was soliciting advertisements for his paper. It will be remembered that at that time the "News" was the most bitter Negro hating journal in the South. Just a few days prior to this representative's visit to Mr. Settle's office, its columns contained caricatured Negroes, under which was written, "Gwine ter de White House Dinner." In addition to this it contained editorials condemnatory of President Roosevelt in a manner that should cause all true Americans to blush with shame. Notwithstanding these things and its leaning toward the lynching of "niggers," it had the unblushing audacity to send its representative to the office of one of the wealthiest Negro lawyers in the South in search of business. It is safe to say he left feeling different than when he called, as the following conversation will show:

News Man - "Mr. Settle, I am soliciting ads for our paper. We are preparing a new directory which will contain all the prominent lawyers of the city. I have come to see if I could get yours."

Mr. Settle - "What paper do you represent?"

News Man - "The Memphis Morning News."

Placing his large meerschaum pipe on the desk, Mr. Settle answered in the following manner - "No, sir; I don't want any ad in your directory."

News Man - "Why not?"

Mr. Settle - "Why not? Yours is the most extreme journal in this section. You are as cowardly as you are extreme. You are unfair, too; you strike at a poor, defenseless people who can not strike back at you. You do not voice the sentiments of your best people, and unless you change your course your paper can not possibly live."

News Man (color changing and advancing toward the door) - "Our business is better now than ever before; we will live."

Mr. Settle - "You cannot live; but I notice in your editorial of a few days ago, you are advising the country to let up on the Negro question. You seem to be getting sick of your own game. You started it and now you have discovered that the North is figuring on cutting down your representation in Congress; you are among the first to hollow 'let up! let up on the Negro question!'"

News Man (showing signs of agitation) - "We will live."

Mr. Settle - "You started this agitation, and now you see that the North is tired of a white man in the South having five times the voting power that white men in the North have. You are willing enough now to let up. Your representation in Congress is just as sure to be cut down as we are here to-day."

At this point the News man left without saying a word except that his paper would live. This was the most interesting colloquy and the grandest defense for the race your correspondent has ever heard.

Mr. Settle is a devout member of the Episcopal church, being treasurer of his church. His natural disposition is that of a polished and cultured gentleman. Unlike most men he believes that men should be refined in their manners and deeds, even though they be to themselves at a stag party.

The young men aspiring to the profession of law could find no better character to emulate than the subject of this sketch. Indeed his professional life as outlined in his Greenville speech in which he advised his hearers to first secure a thorough college education and then be truthful and honest. You may say all you choose about self-made men and women, but unless our struggling young women and men secure substantial aid from our strong men, the chances for their success in life are very discouraging. In this respect Mr. Settle has few equals and no superiors. The worthy young men holding positions of honor who received help and inspiration from this great man in their early days are many. Letters full of thanks from United States Consul Ruffin to him, bespeak in no uncertain way of a few of the great favors he has shown the young men of the race.

Mr. Settle's home life is as faultless as is his public life. No man could be more devoted to his family than he. He has a wife and two promising sons, Masters Josiah, jr., and McCullough. Mrs. Settle is a south Carolinian, but was reared in Memphis. For a number of years she was a music teacher in Lemoyne Institute. Her strong force of character bespeaks fitness for any place of honor in the gift of any female seminary. In resigning her position as teacher, Lemoyne lost one of the greatest teachers for girls in our land. If I had a billion mouths and each mouth as many tongues, I would use them all in exclaiming to our women teachers of the entire country to take inspiration from this noble woman remembering if your neighbors can say no more of you than hers say of her, millions and millions of babies yet unborn will cluster around your graves and say, "Well done."

Next to her strong christian character is her love of music. Mrs. Settle is very fond of music. Every morning, as promptly as it comes, strains of music, as sweet as the breath of Divinity, may be heard bursting forth from her parlor window, arresting the attention of passers by. Mrs. Settle at the piano and her two sons, Josiah, jr. and McCullough, with violins make music that adds so much to their comfortable home. In their dotage the Settle boys may recall their childhood days and with no little degree of feelings sing there is no place like home. Being a close student and lover of books, Mrs. Settle is a great help to her husband in a literary way. She is not at all easily approached, but those who know her best say she has nothing too good for her friends.

The entire Settle family are preparing to take their usual summer trip to points East and North. A greater portion of the time will be spent at Atlantic City, N.J. Afro-Americans throughout the city of Memphis are wishing them a pleasant trip and a safe return home. Should you ask me how to reach the unreached Negro, I would tell you to let us all strive to emulate the life and character of this family. Let us have the civic pride and the love of home that are so characteristic of these people. Let us beautify our homes; when we shall have done this and all that in our power lies to secure the proper recognition as American citizens, we will receive that welcome approbation: "Thou hast been faithful over a few things, enter into the Heaven of rest and be ruler over many."






The Colored American, “The Colored American clipping,” Mississippi State University Libraries, accessed December 10, 2023,

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