Lutie Lytle First African American Woman to be admitted to the Kansas Bar

Lutie Lytle (1875 – 1950) In October 1897 Topekans were buzzing with the news that one of their own was a pioneer in her field. One of only two students in Central Tennessee law school’s graduating class of 1897, Lutie A. Lytle was among the first African American woman to earn a law degree.

Lytle was born around 1875 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where her father’s family had lived for some time. John R., Mary Ann “Mollie”, the family’s four children and Lutie’s grandmother moved to Kansas around 1882, a time when many other African Americans were relocating from Tennessee to Kansas with the Exoduster movement.

The Lytle family lived at 1435 Monroe Street and Lutie and her brothers attended Topeka schools, including Topeka High School. John became active in the Populist Party and ran an unsuccessful campaign for city jailor. His involvement led to Lutie’s appointment as the Populist’s assistant enrolling clerk for the state legislature. She also worked for one of the African American newspapers in Topeka. It was in this position where she dreamt of higher pursuits.

“I conceived the idea of studying law in a printing office where I worked for years as a compositor,” Lutie said during an interview in 1897. “I read the newspaper exchanges a great deal and became impressed with the knowledge of the fact that my own people especially were the victims of legal ignorance. I resolved to fathom its depths and penetrate its mysteries and intricacies in hopes of being a benefit to my people.”

At the age of 21, Lutie moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. There she taught school to pay for her tuition at Central Tennessee College in Nashville. While in college, Lutie also became involved other social activities.

“There were a number of young men studying beside her, but she held her own with them all,” stated a Nashville newspaper in 1897. “Though she studied hard, she did not shut herself out from the enjoyment of the society of her fellow students. She was a member of the college glee club, and at the numerous musical entertainments given by the students she was invariably relied upon to accompany on the piano.”

In September 1897 Lytle was admitted to the Criminal Court in Memphis, Tennessee, after passing an oral exam. Newspaper accounts said that she was the first African American woman to be licensed to practice in Tennessee, and third in the United States. Later that month, after returning to Topeka, she became the first African American woman admitted to the Kansas bar.

Lutie continued to dream of helping other African Americans through the legal system, as she talked of establishing a practice in Chicago or New York.  For the next year, Lutie lived in Topeka.  She was invited to lecture for women’s groups and local colleges on law related to domestic issues.

“When I was graduated in June, I intended to commence practicing right away, but I found that a rest was what I needed,” Lytle said.  In fall 1898 Lytle announced that she would join the faculty at Central Tennessee. Newspaper accounts claimed that she was the only woman law instructor in the world. She served one session, 1898 – 1899, in that position.

In 1910 Lytle was living in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, Alfred C. Cowan, also a lawyer. The couple attended the annual convention of what is now known as the Negro Bar Association in 1913. Media stories said she was the first African American female to become a member of a national bar organization and the first to participate with a spouse.

Lytle returned to Topeka in 1925 and addressed a large audience at St. John’s A.M.E. Church, which she had attended in her youth. Lytle told her audience about the progress of African Americans in New York City. She shared examples of integration in the schools and government and told of the vision of Marcus Garvey, considered the father of contemporary Black Nationalism.

Few other accounts exist of Lutie’s life in New York. She had no children and the date of her death is unconfirmed, but believed to be in 1950.

Others in the Lytle family also were well known in Topeka. Lutie’s father, John, was a barber in downtown Topeka and also worked as a policeman. Lutie’s brother, Charles, operated barbershops at 109 West Fifth and 326 Kansas Avenue. He later opened a drug store in 100 block of East Fourth. Charles had a lengthy career in law enforcement, which included police detective, chief of detectives, and deputy state fire marshal where he held a record for most convictions in arson cases at 236.

Kansas Black History Facts were prepared for The Community Voice by Donna Rae Pearson.  

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