Thomas Frank Cassels – Memphis’ First Black Attorney

I was truly amazed when I started doing the research on this fine Memphian. After reading countless newspaper stories from different periods of his life, it was obvious to me that Mr Cassels is a forgotten hero.

Thomas Cassels, one of ten children, was born to free blacks in Ohio. His parents sent him to Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio. At the time it was the oldest co-educational, segregated liberal arts college in the US.  It was founded in 1833 and began admitting African Americans in 1835. It was not until 1937 that it opened to women. Mary Church would attend in later years.

Thomas Cassels married Emma Lett, a school teacher, and in 1870 they moved to Memphis where he was the first black attorney to practice law in the city. He was the first to plead a case before the West Tennessee Supreme Court and in 1878 was appointed Assistant Attorney General of Shelby County. In 1880 he became the U.S. Surveyor of Customs. In 1881-82 he was elected to the Shelby Delegation to the State legislature.  During his tenure with the legislature he introduced 10 bills and worked tirelessly to improve conditions for blacks

In 1883 he was appointed as Collector of Customs. In  May of 1884, Ida B Wells hired him to file a suit against the Chesapeake & Ohio Southwestern Rail Road. Ms. Wells had been thrown off a First Class car even though she had the appropriate ticket. In 1888 he was a Republican Presidential elector to the Republican National Convention held in Chicago.

It is well documented that white as well as black Memphians hired him because of his reputation as a fine attorney.

Green P. Hamilton’s writes in his book The Bright Side of Memphis, “For over thirty years, the colored people of Memphis have been ably represented at the bar of Public Justice, a pioneer in the profession having T. F. Cassels one of the craftiest, most resourceful and most learned lawyers regardless of race that ever practiced law in Memphis.“

The Cassels had two sons Clinton and DeWitt. They lived at 861 S Lauderdale Street which also happened to be the same area where other prominent Memphians lived, including long time US Senator K.D. McKellar and Robert Church Jr.

T. F. Cassels died young at 52 from tuberculosis.


Research Aids:

African American Legislators of the 19th Century

Green P Hamilton’s book The Bright Side of Memphis (page 59, printed in 1908) “

Memphis Evening Herald, November 22 1878 page 4

Daily Memphis Avalanche November 5, 1880


Written by Joe Lowry with research and editorial assistance by Trish Gully.

Leave a Reply