Henry H. Tarrant 1922

Detroit Mercy Law's First Known African American Graduate

Henry Tarrant was born in Harrisburg, Alabama in 1892.  Henry’s father was a farmer and Henry was a farm worker at 8 years old. His family moved to Detroit as part of the Great Migration around 1919.  After serving in WWI, Henry joined his family here and enrolled at University of Detroit School of Law in September 1919 at the age of 27. Throughout his time in school, he worked as a clerk at the US Post Office. Two months after beginning law school, he married Ernestine Fountain; over the next ten years they had six children. Henry graduated from law school in June 1922. His father died four months later but lived to see his son graduate from law school—what a remarkable occasion that must have been for the entire family—to move from rural Alabama in the early 1900s to Detroit where one of his children became one of a small number of African Americans to practice law in Michigan. Over the next sixteen years, Tarrant practiced law in Detroit.

During the 1920s, and even earlier, racial violence was prevalent across the country and in Detroit. In Oklahoma and Florida race riots resulted in African American neighborhoods and whole towns being burned to the ground; in Washington DC, Chicago, East St. Louis, and Arkansas, black people were systematically beaten, and killed; lynchings continued to occur. The KKK said it had more members in Detroit in 1921 than any other place in the US; in 1925 it held a rally on the west side attended by more than 10,000 KKK members in white, hooded robes. In 1925, in a case that drew national attention, Ossian Sweet, represented by Clarence Darrow, was tried (and eventually acquitted) for killing a white bystander when a white, angry, and violent mob descended on the Sweet home intent on coercing the Sweets to abandon their newly purchased home in a largely white Detroit neighborhood.

In these times of racial violence, Tarrant was active in organizations that sought racial equality and justice. He was a member of the Harlan Law Club, formed in 1919 because local bar associations excluded African American attorneys. (The club, named for Justice John M. Harlan, the only dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 US 537 (1896), was the precursor to the Wolverine Bar Association.) Other U of D law graduates joined Tarrant in the Harlan Law Club, including Frank Stoney (1922), Hazel Lyman (1927), and Harold E. Bledsoe (1925). On the national scene, in response to the American Bar Association excluding African Americans, the National Bar Association formed in 1924. When the NBA held its annual, national meeting in Detroit in 1929, Tarrant was the contact person for those needing housing. 

We know little about Tarrant’s life apart from what we have found in law school and US Census records and newspaper reports. Tarrant was divorced in 1946 and died in 1980. In 1939 he had at least one criminal case of note, where an African American man was acquitted by all-white jury of murdering his wife based on self-defense. Unfortunately, his professional life as a lawyer came to an end in 1940 when he was disbarred; we do not know why.

The history of African American lawyers in Detroit is full of toil and remarkable achievements. Tarrant’s career exemplifies that history. Perhaps thinking he would be the lone African American attending the Jesuit University of Detroit School of Law, in his quest to become a lawyer, he was surely surprised and pleased to find other African Americans coming with and behind him seeking to become lawyers.

Their experience at a then nascent Jesuit law school, located in what was then Detroit’s Black Bottom, forged relationships that transcended graduation and continued into the early years of their careers.   Well-prepared by their legal training, these relationships strengthened their passion to fight for equal justice through the creation of local and national organizations that have sustained the fight for more than 100 years. 

Tarrant’s career highlights the vital role that connecting with alumni plays in establishing a legal career and fighting for justice.  It reminds us that graduates are stronger when standing and working together than alone; that a legal education affords each of us extraordinary opportunities that we would not otherwise have; that successful careers are not guaranteed to any one of us; that it is incumbent on each of us to seize those opportunities to not only maintain, but also to create, new pathways for those seeking such opportunity.

This history is based on law school records and information gathered by Gene Moy, former Reference Librarian at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, and most notably Carrie A. Sharlow, Administrative Assistant, Government Relations, State Bar of Michigan, as well as Margaret A. Leary, former Law Library Director, Univ. of Michigan. Arc of Justice:  A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (2004), by Kevin Boyle, is an indispensable history of Detroit in the 1920s. likewise, a key history of black lawyers in Michigan is Edward J. Littlejohn and Donald L. Hobson, Black Lawyers, Law Practice, and Bar Associations—1844-1970:  A Michigan History 17 (Wolverine Bar Assoc. reprint of 33 Wayne L. Rev. 1625 (1987)).

Special thank you to Patrick Meyer, Director of the Library & Professor of Law for identifying and researching Henry H. Tarrant and his law school career.