First Black Notaries in the U.S.
There are few online articles and mentions about the first black notaries in United States history. Many stories were not written and have been lost.
Here are a few stories, listed in chronological order by notary appointment year. For some notaries, the year of appointment was not found and is shown as TBD.
State and local history museums, historical societies, libraries, and newspaper archives may have more information.
First Black Notaries and the Civil War
The first black notaries in the United States were appointed before the Civil War fighting began on April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.
During the war, on September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that as of January 1, 1863, all enslaved people in the states currently engaged in rebellion against the Union “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
He signed the formal Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, but it only applied to Confederate states or areas currently in rebellion, and not to the border states that remained loyal to the Union.
On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery. It reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, effectively ending the war.
Only five days later, on April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor and Confederate sympathizer, before the required number of states ratified the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865.
William Noland, Madison, Wisconsin, 1857
William Noland, born in 1811 in Binghamton, New York, arrived with his wife and children as the first black residents of Madison in 1850. He worked as a barber, baker, musician, veterinarian, and grocery operator. He received public attention when he refused to cut the hair of a customer who helped capture a fugitive slave.
In 1857, Governor Coles Bashford appointed him as the first black notary in Wisconsin, but he never served. Secretary of State David W. Jones refused to accept his notary bond due to racial discrimination. In 1866, he was drafted by the Democrats to run for Mayor of Madison. He declined because of the Democrats’ hostility toward equal rights.
In 1875, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a B.A., the first black graduate. He attended law school there for two semesters.
Preston G. Wells, St. Louis, Missouri, 1864
Preston G. Wells, born in 1810, moved from Kentucky to St. Louis, Missouri, and worked as a barber and hairdresser. He is listed in the 1851 St. Louis directory as the proprietor of Wells’ Nonpareil Hairdressing Saloon and Baths. The bathhouse featured 12 rooms, half with marble tubs. He also operated a boarding house with his wife Jane.
As the Civil War ended, he became more vocal about the rights of black people. In 1864, he became the first black notary commissioned by the Governor of Missouri. He served on the St. Louis Board of Education for Free Colored Schools. He also traveled to Syracuse, New York, to attend the National Convention for Colored Men.
In 1870, he was introduced at the Colored People’s Educational Convention in Jefferson City, Missouri, as the first black notary in the state, with cheers from the audience.
W.P. Powell, New York City, 1865
W.P. Powell was the first black notary of New York City, appointed by Governor Reuben E. Fenton in May 1865. Governor Fenton also served as a U.S. Congressman, Senator, and close political associate of Abraham Lincoln.
George T. Ruby, Galveston, Texas, 1866
In 1866, Texas Governor Elisha Pease appointed George T. Ruby as the first black notary in Galveston. Ruby worked for the Texas Freedmen’s Bureau and was a correspondent for the New Orleans Tribune. He later started his own newspaper, the Galveston Standard, using it as a forum to advocate for voting and civil rights for African Americans.
He founded the local chapter of the Loyal Union League, which advised blacks about their political rights. He became president of the League in 1868, boosting his local political power in the Republican Party. When black males got the right to vote in 1867, they elected Ruby as the Galveston delegate to the state Constitutional Convention in Austin.
In 1869, he was elected Galveston’s first black state senator. He became influential by serving on several Senate committees and became a political ally of Governor Edmond J. Davis.
He did not seek reelection and returned to New Orleans in 1873 to work again at the Tribune. He died in 1882.
John Oliver, Richmond, Virginia, 1867
John Oliver was the first black notary in Virginia, appointed by Governor Francis Harrison Pierpont in May 1867, after the Civil War, during the early years of Reconstruction. He fought for equal rights in Richmond and personally broke down many of the city’s racial barriers.
Note: Richmond was the former capital of the Confederacy from May 26, 1861, until it was evacuated and set on fire on April 2, 1865.
In 1867, he was one of six black jurors on the federal grand jury that indicted Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, for treason.
He served on the Richmond city council (1872–73) and was named a deputy U.S. Marshal.
A prominent Republican, he organized black city workers to improve working conditions and presided over an interracial labor convention in 1870, the first in the nation. He was president of the local chapter of the Colored National Labor Union from 1870 to 1878 and edited a local paper, the Industrial Herald, in the 1880s. He died in 1899.
John L. Jones, Chicago, Illinois, 1869
In 1869, blacks became eligible for political office in Illinois, and Governor John McAuley Palmer appointed John L. Jones as the first black notary public in Illinois. As a Cook County Commissioner, he was also the first black elected to public office in Chicago.
He was born a free man in 1817 to a German father and black mother in North Carolina. He moved to Chicago in 1835 and used his house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. His home was a meeting place for abolitionist leaders including Frederick Douglass and John Brown.
He wrote many antislavery pamphlets. Even though slavery was abolished, discriminatory black codes deprived, restricted, and oppressed the black population. His well-written pamphlet opposing the black laws gained support and drove the general assembly to repeal all of them.
He learned to read and write with the help of Chicago attorney Lemanuel C. Paine Freer, a strong opponent of slavery. Jones died in 1879.
William H. Parham, Ohio, 1874
William H. Parham was the first African-American graduate of the University of Cincinnati in 1874. He was superintendent of the Colored Schools from 1866 to 1876. He was one of the first black notaries in Ohio and one of the first to be nominated for the state legislature.
Nathaniel R. Harper, Kentucky, 1878
Nathaniel R. Harper was born in Indianapolis and was raised and studied law in Detroit. After moving to Louisville in 1870, he became the first black lawyer, judge, and notary in Kentucky. In 1871, he was one of the first two blacks licensed to practice law in Kentucky.
In 1878, he became the first black notary in the state. In 1885, he became the first black judge in Louisville city court. He fought for the rights of blacks to serve on state juries and founded a law school that was eventually absorbed into the Central Law School.
Martin Pedee, Catlin, Illinois, late 1880s
Martin Pedee was one of the first black notaries and justices of the peace in Illinois in the late 1880s. He was born enslaved on a huge plantation in the Carolinas in the mid-1840s.
As a teenager, he joined the 35th U.S. Colored Infantry, serving for nine years as one of the famous Buffalo Soldiers in the U.S. Infantry in the West.
Following his discharge, he moved to Catlin, Illinois, and became a barber, municipal band member, and the first African-American police magistrate elected in the state, making national news.
He was honored at his Catlin cemetery gravesite in 2019 by a special ceremony consisting of Civil War historians and the American Legion honor guard firing a 21-gun salute in remembrance of his service.
Robert Day, Pennsylvania, 1890
Robert Day was appointed as the first black notary in Pennsylvania in 1890. He was also well known in Ohio and advertised in the weekly Cleveland Gazette, an African-American newspaper.
Rene Metoyer, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1917
Rene Metoyer was one of Louisiana’s first black notaries. He was born in Natchitoches, Louisiana in 1858, to a cotton planter from a prominent Louisiana family.
In 1863, during the Civil War, his family relocated to New Orleans. He graduated from the Law Department of Straight University in 1886 and was admitted to practice before the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Metoyer practiced law for over forty years in New Orleans. He was appointed a notary public in 1917. He died in 1937.
James Buchanan (J.B.) Maxwell, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, 1931
James Buchanan (J.B.) Maxwell was born in slavery in 1854 in Flat Rock, North Carolina. He and his parents were owned by plantation owner James Maxwell. After Emancipation, J.B. and his family walked to Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, to be reunited with family members who had been sold to South Carolina owners.
Around 1873, he graduated from Charleston’s Avery Institute and later used his education to help his community. He insisted on the proper use of English and helped locals read their mail and legal documents.
He voted when few other blacks did at that time. Court transcripts from 1879 include the testimony of blacks accused of voting while illiterate. When J.B. was called as a witness, he shocked the courtroom lawyer by proving that he could read, and he understood who and what he was voting for.
He was the first black notary public in the Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina area around 1931. One surviving notarized document is for a widow’s pension for her husband who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He died in 1940.
Taylor Ewing, Jr., Mississippi, year TBD
Taylor Ewing, Jr. was the first black notary public in the state of Mississippi. He was the son of a slave who fought with the Union troops.
Kermit McKelvy, Moulton, Alabama, year TBD
Kermit McKelvy was the first black notary and first black voter in Lawrence County, Alabama. He was a community leader, activist, member of the NAACP, and held voting rallies for black people in the area of Moulton.
William Henry Wall, Stanly County, North Carolina, year TBD
William Henry Wall was the first black notary in Stanly County, North Carolina. He was born in 1883 in Stanly County to former slaves. With a sixth-grade education, he worked as a brick mason and was active in his church and community.
He served as high school PTA president and was a superintendent of church schools for 50 years. He built many homes on Wall Street in Kingville. He died in 1967.
Jessie Robinson, Homestead, Florida, year TBD
Jessie Robinson was the first black notary public in Homestead, Florida. He was the first person hired by the First National Bank of Homestead in 1932. His contributions were legendary. He was an honorary vice president at the bank where he worked for 48 years.
Charles Jones, Hartford, Connecticut, year TBD
Charles Jones was active in the Hartford community, involved with the Elks Club and the Republican Party, and is thought to be the first black notary in Hartford. His son, Marvin Edward Jones, was an Army veteran, police officer, civics teacher, coach, and church leader. Marvin was an advocate for equal treatment in the hiring and promotion of black police officers.
Katherine Harris, Florence, South Carolina, year TBD
Katherine Harris was the first black notary in Florence, South Carolina. She christened the Ebony Guest House in the 1940s, promoting it as a “Home Away from Home” for potential customers. Many famous black guests included Jackie Wilson, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and James Brown.
It was listed in Victor Hugo Green’s travel guide, known as the Green Book, advertising businesses that welcomed black customers nationwide starting in 1938, while de facto segregation practices were a continuing problem with many businesses.
Addie Whitehead Dickerson, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, year TBD
Addie Whitehead Dickerson was the first black notary in Philadelphia and one of the first black law graduates from the Temple University School of Law. She was also part of a delegation sent to the White House to talk to President Herbert Hoover about the concerns of Black Americans in 1931.
Addie and her husband George Dickerson were the original owners of a building in South Philadelphia now used for hosting events, programs, and exhibits for the African-American community, including the Art Sanctuary and the annual Celebration of Black Arts Festival (CBA).
Amanda Smelley Burton, Eutaw, Alabama, year TBD
Amanda Smelley Burton was the first black notary public and the first black woman to register to vote in Greene County, Alabama. She completed her B.A. degree at Alabama State University in Montgomery and was a certified librarian and school teacher. She was also active in her church activities.
She became the first woman commissioner in Greene County when four-time Governor George C. Wallace appointed her to fill her late husband’s unexpired term. She celebrated her 100th birthday in 2008, still remaining active in local politics.
Civil Rights Pioneers
These first black notaries were pioneers in the notary industry, overcoming racial discrimination and fighting for freedom, liberty, equality, justice, and civil rights. Some rose up from slavery to become highly respected community members and public officials.
Emma Gillett was the first female notary, appointed in 1881, for Washington, D.C., by President James A. Garfield.
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