James C. Matthews: New York State's first black judge, Albany Law graduate

james_campbell_matthews- Albany Law.jpg

A sketch of James Campbell Matthews, New York State's first black law school grad and first black judge.

Each Friday this February we'll be highlighting people and stories from the Capital Region in honor of Black History Month.

In 1871 the first African-American to graduate from a New York State law school obtained his degree from Albany Law. Six years after the end of the Civil War, James Campbell Matthews was admitted to the New York Bar and became one of just a handful of black lawyers in the country -- and one of the most successful. Matthews went on to become the first African-American judge in New York State.

Oh, and in his first act as a lawyer, he may, or may not, have sued the city of Albany to desegregate its public schools. That part is tough to tell.

Almost a century and a half later, in a time when we're complacently led to believe that all the world's history is available on a device we can carry in our pocket, the search for the Matthews story is a reminder that there are many important stories that still remain virtually untold.

James Campbell Matthews wasn't the first black lawyer in New York State. That title belongs to a man named George Boyer Vashon, who had studied law at Oberlin in Ohio and became that school's first African-American college graduate in 1844. Vashon first tried to gain admittance to the Pennsylvania Bar, but it wouldn't a admit him. He later found success with the New York Bar and practiced in Syracuse for a short time.

Another New York lawyer -- Henry W. Johnson, who may have originally been from Vermont -- was admitted to the state bar in 1864 after apparently studying under a lawyer he worked for. Johnson tried to practice for about a year in Canandaigua, but left to practice law in Liberia after a short time.

So for Matthews to have established an active practice, become a judge, and eventually be appointed the Recorder of Deeds in the District of Columbia by President Grover Cleveland -- that was pretty incredible for the time.

But for a person who achieved so much, the Matthews story is a little muddled today.

U.S. District Court Judge Randolph Treece has done some research on Matthews for Albany Law School. Treece says Matthews was one of five children born to a barber and his wife in New Haven, Connecticut. A history of Albany Law School by Elizabeth Allen and Diana Waite confirms that version of events. (An 1895 New York Times article reports Matthews was born in Albany and "resided here all his life.")

In 1850, around the time the Matthews family came to Albany, the city's Board of Education segregated schools by opening the Wilberforce School for colored children -- a school that was inferior to the white public schools. It's believed that James Campbell Matthews did not attend Wilberforce, but rather attended Albany Academy after winning a competitive scholarship. The Academy apparently has no record of his enrollment, but a lot of its records were destroyed in a fire.

Matthews worked for a few years as a bookkeeper and then took a job as a clerk at a law firm. In 1864, he was admitted to Albany Law.

Nothing is really known about Matthews' time at Albany Law, but Allen and Waite's history of Albany law school reports he graduated in 1871 and that his first case was a lawsuit against the Albany School Board. According to Waite's history, "He won the case, which forced the city to desegregate public schools."

Judge Treece says that's not entirely accurate. According to Treece's research, a wealthy black businessman named William A. Dietz was working to get black children the right to attend the better, white schools, and he had he hired another lawyer to take the case. But Treece says given Matthews' background and location, it is possible Matthews worked on the lawsuit. Also: Treece says, Dietz didn't win the case. A year later, though, the state legislature passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1873, which, among other things, declared that black children could no longer be barred from attending any public schools.

But there is some evidence that Dietz effort might have prompted some change in Albany -- a biography of abolitionist and activist of William Henry Johnson suggests the Wilberforce school was closed before the Civil Rights Bill of 1873 was enacted. Still, there doesn't appear to be any mention of Matthews.

One of the side effects of closing the Wilberforce school was that black teachers, including Matthews' sister, lost their jobs. They were not invited to teach in the integrated public schools. Twelve years later, when New York City was considering closing its black schools, Matthews was instrumental in persuading the city to not abolish "colored schools" in an effort to preserve the jobs of black teachers.

Matthews became a sought-after speaker and was a delegate to the 1872 Colored Republican State Central Committee. He later changed his party affiliation to Democrat and became president of the Grover Cleveland Colored Club.

In 1886 Cleveland nominated Matthews to become the recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia, a position being vacated by Frederick Douglas. The US Senate refused to confirm him because he didn't reside in the District of Columbia. According to Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, there was a smear campaign launched against Matthews. In the end, Cleveland made a recess appointment and James Campbell Matthews served in the job for four months.

According to Albany Law School: A Tradition of Change, Matthews ended up serving as a lawyer in Albany for 44 years, and was elected Judge of the Recorder's Court in Albany. At the time it was the highest judicial office help by any black man in the country. Matthews served as recorder under two city mayors.

What is known about James C. Matthews is that his Albany law practice was successful. In an 1886 article in the Cleveland Gazette it was reported that "it will at once be understood that [Matthews] must and does draw largely upon the patronage of all classes of citizens."

*Thanks to Judge Randolph Treece, Albany Law Library , Mount Ida Press, The NYS Library and The Historical Society of the NY Courts for research assistance.

More local history in honor of Black History Month:
+ The Mohawk Colored Giants of Schenectady
+ Stephen & Harriet Myers, station agents for Albany's portion of the Underground Railroad


Thanks again for another bit of great local history!

A stunningly wonderful article! It has always amazed me that so much of Albany's African American history is overlooked in favor of re-telling the broad themes of Black History across the country. The local story is inspiring and tells local young people (and older folks) that success has always been present in Albany's African American community. It didn't just spring up n the 1950s or 60s as one sometimes gets the impression when local history is told. It also let's people know that all New York Black history doesn't come out of New York City - which is important for people who are New Yorkers (people resident in NYS) but didn't grow up in NYC anywhere. Thanks for a wonderful article!

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