Five of the Greatest: Joseph Henry Stuart (circa 1851–1910)

 Photo credit: Original Photograph Collection (Scan #10036732), History Colorado.

Lawyer, political activist, and one of Colorado’s first black legislators are just a few of the titles Joseph Henry Stuart held while living in Colorado from 1891 until his death in 1910. His educational achievements during one of the most contentious and difficult eras of American history—the Reconstruction Era—make him one of Colorado’s greatest lawyers.

Legal Education in the Era of Reconstruction

Joseph Henry Stuart was born circa 18511 on the island of Barbados in the British West Indies. He later emigrated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, before making his way to South Carolina, where he was admitted to the University of South Carolina to study law in 1873.2 He was licensed to practice law in South Carolina on December 6, 1875.3

Stuart attended the University of South Carolina during a remarkable period in the school’s history. From 1873 to 1877, the University of South Carolina was known as Reconstruction University.4 After the Civil War, the Reconstruction Acts attempted to reform the Southern states by integrating public accommodations, political offices, and educational institutions. Reconstruction University was conceived in 1869 by the University of South Carolina’s first black trustees, with the aim of removing economic obstacles to education, such as tuition fees, room rent, and library fees.5 The trustees, along with the first elected Reconstruction Governor, Robert K. Scott,established scholarships and revised the educational structure by creating a preparatory school as a department of the university, a sub-freshman class, and a coeducational normal college7 on the university campus.8 

It was during the Reconstruction Era that Joseph Stuart attended law school, earning his degree in 18759 alongside Mortimer Alanson Warren, the first headmaster of South Carolina’s Preparatory School and State Normal School, and Thomas McCarts Stewart, a prominent newspaperman and appointee to the Supreme Court of Liberia.10 The Reconstruction University was short-lived, however, holding its last commencement exercises in June 1877. The experiment was ended by Governor Wade Hampton III, a Confederate soldier and member of a prominent planter family who completely shuttered public education at the university to black students, a situation that continued until the 1960s.11 Hampton’s election effectively ended all Reconstruction efforts in South Carolina and imposed Black Codes12 that kept people like Stuart from practicing law. Fortunately for Stuart, he was licensed to practice law before Hampton became Governor.

Moving West to Build a Future

Records show that by 1880 Stuart had moved west to Kansas, where he appears to have been a Federal Census Enumerator that year and identified his occupation as “Attorney.”13 By 1883, he was officially admitted to practice law in Kansas and had opened a thriving law practice in Topeka.14 Stuart quickly became involved in local politics, trying one of the state’s first school desegregation cases that, albeit unsuccessful, served as a model for another Topeka school desegregation suit: Brown v. Board of Education.15

Stuart eventually left Kansas for Colorado, where he was admitted to the bar on motion to the Supreme Court on December 1, 1891.16 Stuart opted to practice law in Denver, setting up shop at the Kittredge Building, Denver’s most modern building at the time, complete with electricity, steam heat, and elevators.17

Election to the General Assembly

While in Colorado, Stuart established himself in the black community and took up the most controversial issue of the day—women’s suffrage. Stuart, a Republican, worked with the local black women’s club, which advocated for both racial equality and the right to vote. Among Stuart’s staunchest advocates was Elizabeth Piper Ensley, the Denver correspondent for Woman’s ERA, the official publication of the National Association of Colored Women.18 Ensley, a local suffragette, founded the Colorado Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association in 1893.19 The non-partisan aspect of the organization was key to winning allies in the Populist Party, which had just elected Governor Davis H. Waite, who eventually signed the Equal Suffrage Act into law on December 2, 1893.20 

In 1894, after the achievement of suffrage in the state, Ensley, with fellow suffragette and clubwoman Ida DePriest, formed the Colored Woman’s Republican Club and worked to elect Stuart to the General Assembly.21 Ensley wrote in the June 1894 issue of Woman’s ERA:

The readers of the ERA will be interested to know what special part the colored women have taken in the election. Most of them have done admirable work in the interest of the Republican party. They also formed clubs of their own and heroically helped their brothers to elect a representative to the legislature, although the majority of those brothers voted against woman’s enfranchisement.22

Stuart was elected to the General Assembly along with the first three women to serve in the legislature of any state.23 Serving as a Republican from Arapahoe County (which included Denver), Stuart was appointed to membership in three committees—Judiciary, Fees and Salaries, and Revision and Constitution—and to serve as chair of the Committee on Federal Relations.24 While serving, Stuart also opened up opportunities for other members of the black community. Specifically, he made appointments of prominent community members, such as J.D.D. Rivers, the owner and publisher of The Colorado Statesman, to be Messenger of the House.25

Stuart also introduced several bills in his short tenure as a Representative, including: H.B. 308, a bill for an act to prevent railway companies from charging or collecting excessive fares (which were often imposed on a segregated basis); H.B. 378, an act to consolidate Judicial Districts 13 and 2; and H.B. 379, an act to prohibit extortion and discrimination in the transmission of telegraph dispatches.26 Stuart’s biggest accomplishment however, was the introduction and passage of H.B. 175, an Act to Protect All Citizens in their Civil and Legal Rights.27 Though Colorado had previously enacted a civil rights statute, the law lacked any private right of action. Stuart’s bill imposed a monetary penalty for violation of the state’s public accommodation laws of up to $500.28

On February 20, 1895, Stuart introduced House Resolution 49 to announce the death of Frederick Douglass and give his condolences in the public record. In his commemoration, Stuart observed that

the country has sustained a great loss in the removal of that grand and picturesque personality, which in itself united the two great eras of the history of our government—the period of slavery and the period of freedom, and which exemplified more than any other the latent and native abilities of the negro race.29

Life in the Law

Stuart’s legal career was focused primarily on trial advocacy. In Colorado, Stuart earned the reputation of being a thoroughly analytical orator in the courtroom. In a particularly high-profile murder trial in Trinidad, Colorado, newspapers noted that Stuart’s opponent, District Attorney Watson McHendrie, complimented Stuart for his “dissecting talk of the evidence,” which resulted in an acquittal after just a half hour of deliberation.30 The newspaper also noted that Stuart was the first black attorney to ever appear before that court.

Another article, published during a streak of wins for Stuart, covered his defense of a woman on trial for murder in Denver.31 The defendant pleaded self-defense and was acquitted on a motion for directed verdict after Stuart made a stunning display on cross-examination in support of her story.32

End of an Era

Stuart’s legal career came to an abrupt end when he fell ill and died of pneumonia on April 4, 1910. While Stuart did not marry, and had no family locally, his funeral was the “largest [ ] that has ever taken place in the City of Denver for years.”33 Fellow attorney, civil rights activist, and Kansan William Bolden Townsend served as pallbearer and gave Stuart’s eulogy.34

Stuart’s legacy in Colorado is perhaps summed up best in his own words: “Human greatness and true manhood are not the special and exclusive inheritance of any one race, but the common property of the whole human family.”35


1. The exact birth year for Stuart is not known as records differ, including his own reports of his age on his headstone, Census records, and his obituary.

2. See Room and Board Ledgers for Reconstruction University (University of South Carolina) 1876 at 4, digital.tcl.sc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/reconstruct/id/21/rec/1.

3. Erickson, Early Justice and the Formation of the Colorado Bar 102 (CBA-CLE, 2008).

4. Logan, “Living the Dream: The African-American Presence at the University of South Carolina: 1873–1877 (Reconstruction) and 1963–2000 (Reintegration)” (Nov. 2001), www.sa.sc.edu/omsa/living-the-dream.

5. Id.

6. General Robert K. Scott, a former Union Army officer originally from Pennsylvania, served as the Republican Governor of South Carolina from 1868 until 1872. See “Gov. R.K. Scott of South Carolina,” 12 Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization 621 (Sept. 26, 1868).

7. A “normal school” is a term used in the 1880s to refer to teachers’ colleges. The name comes from the purpose of the institutions, which was to establish teaching standards or norms. See generally Ogren, The American State Normal School: An Instrument of Great Good (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

8. Logan, supra note 4.

9. Catalogue of the trustees, faculty and students of the University of South Carolina, Columbia. January, MDCCCLXXVI, USC Catalogs, Archival Set, Box 1, Folder: 1856-1876, digital.tcl.sc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/reconstruct/id/151/rec/30.

10. Logan, supra note 4.

11. Id. See also Green, A History of the University of South Carolina 409–417 (1916).

12. See Zuczek, ed., Reconstruction: A Historic Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic 148–49 (ABC-CLIO, 2016).

13. See Tenth Census of the United States, 1880; Census Place: Topeka, Shawnee, Kansas; Roll: 397; Family History Film: 1254397; Page: 61C; Enumeration District: 003; Image: 0022.

14. See Erickson, supra note 3 at 103.

15. Id. (citing Smith, Jr., Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844–1944 at 490-91 (U. Penn. Press, 1993)).

16. See Law License of Joseph H. Stuart (1891), Colorado Supreme Court Bar Admissions File No. 218, Archives No. 41320, Colorado State Archives, Denver.

17. See Erickson, supra note 3 at 104.

18. Jameson and Armitage, eds., Writing the Range: Race, Class, and Culture in the Women’s West 374 (U. of Okla., 1997).

19. Id.

20. “Proclamation by the Governor of the State of Colorado,” 15 The Queen Bee 1 (Dec. 27, 1893).

21. Ensley, “Election Day,” 1 Woman’s Era 17–18 (June 9, 1894), selections reprinted in Lerner, ed., Black Women in White America 338–39 (Random House, 1972).

22. Id.

23. See Erickson, supra note 3 at 103, n. 586.

24. House Journal of the Gen. Assembly of the State of Colo., Tenth Session at 1505 (1895) (hereinafter 1895 House Journal).

25. Id. at 14 (nomination of Rivers to be Messenger of the House).

26. Id. at 308, 318, and 319.

27. Id. at 198.

28. Colorado Session Laws (1895), Ch. 61, Civil Rights, at 139–141.

29. 1895 House Journal at 543 (introducing H.R. No. 49).

30. “Gratton Turner Soon Acquitted,” Colorado Statesman 4 (Mar. 23, 1907).

31. “In the News,” Colorado Statesman 5 (Oct. 20, 1906).

32. Id. (“[S]o clearly and completely was the killing shown to be justifiable by the witnesses for the prosecution, that Mr. Stuart, without offering any testimony for the defense, immediately after the police rested, moved the court to instruct the jury to return verdict of not guilty, . . . which was granted.”).

33. Colorado Statesman 5 (Apr. 16, 1910).

34. Id. See also Obituary: Hon. Joseph H. Stuart, Colorado Statesman 4 (Apr. 9, 1910).

35. 1895 House Journal at 543 (introducing H.R. No. 49).

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