by W. Lewis Burke
Jacob Moorer was born in South Carolina during the Civil War. He was the son of Wilson and Hazel Moorer. Unlike his parents, young Jacob had learned to read and write by 1870 but he worked as a farmhand for his father at age 8. His formal schooling began in the grammar school of Claflin University in Orangeburg in 1884 and culminated with his graduation with an A.B. degree in 1892. He then served as principal of LaGrange Academy in Georgia for a short time and then returned to South Carolina. After passing a written bar examination on December 18, 1896, Moorer was admitted to the South Carolina. The next year Moorer ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature. Then in 1898, Moorer represented a black candidate for Congress in an election challenge. His chief grounds was that the “present Constitution of South Carolina is illegal, void and in direct conflict with the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Moorer’s theory of attacking the 1895 Constitution was motivated by the fact that the constitution had been adopted specifically to disenfranchise black voters. Moorer’s argument was that the South Carolina constitution’s restrictions on suffrage violated the 1868 Reconstruction Act, which had allowed S.C.’s Congressional delegation to be seated provided the state did not place any restrictions on voting beyond age, sex, and felony conviction.
This was not a frivolous argument.(1) It had been used in a number of Congressional election challenges, at least one successfully. In the election contest for South Carolina’s Seventh Congressional district in 1904, the U.S. House Committee on Elections rejected Moorer’s argument. When the House Committee on Elections decided the contest, the New York Times ran the following headline: “Dodges Negro Vote Decision-House Committee says Supreme Court Must Pass on Disfranchising Laws.” As reported by the Times, the house committee noted that if they granted relief to the black Republican they would have to unseat every member in the House from a Southern state.
Since the House committee had invited a challenge in the United States Supreme Court, Moorer found the vehicle to the high court in 1907 when he undertook the representation of Pink Franklin a farm laborer charged with killing a white constable. Despite the efforts of Moorer, Franklin was convicted of murder by an all white jury. After the state’s highest court denied Franklin’s appeal, Moorer sought relief in the United States Supreme Court. Moorer’s constitutional argument concerned white officials in South Carolina. Consequently, Attorney General J. Fraser Lyon employed special counsel to argue the case. Confederate veteran Daniel S. Henderson was a prominent and successful lawyer who began his oral argument began by defending the state’s constitution and asserting that the Reconstruction statute itself was unconstitutional. In the Franklin case, the Supreme Court of the United States rejected Moorer’s novel argument as well, treating Franklin like all other black defendants who claimed discrimination in jury selection. The Court held that Franklin’s lawyers had failed to present any evidence to support an intent to discriminate.
Failing in the Supreme Court did not deter Moorer. In 1915, he and Nathaniel J. Frederick represented Bogus Sanders in a murder trial in Columbia. The two lawyers challenged the exclusion of black s from Sanders’ jury. At a hearing on their challenge, a white election official testified that blacks were not intentionally excluded and asserted that there was no way for him to identify potential jurors because the voter registration rolls did not identify voters by race. On cross examination, Moorer used the county’s voter rolls to impeach the witness by asking him what the “c” next to voter’s names meant. Despite the admission that it identified black voters, the trial court refused to grant the motion challenging the jury. In the appeal to the state supreme court, Moorer and Frederick used their evidence to argue that blacks had been intentionally excluded from the jury. The appellate court denied their claim. The case was overturned because a potential white juror upon questioning admitted he was prejudiced against black lawyers. The trial judge refused to excuse the juror for cause and the state’s appellate court overturned sanders’ conviction and avoided an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by throwing out Sanders’ conviction.
Moorer was married to Lizelia Moorer whose volume of poetry “Prejudice Unveiled” was published in 1907. Her poetry has described as "the best poems on racial issues written by any black woman" before 1950. Jacob and Lizelia Moorer lived continued to live in Orangeburg after he lost the Franklin case. It appears that Moorer’s efforts attracted a clientele. He handled twenty appeals between 1906 and 1926 and won six of those in the Supreme Court of South Carolina. In 1927, Moorer’s health began to fail, and he struggled to maintain his law practice. After that date, Orangeburg court records record few appearances by Moorer. He died in 1935. In the depths of Jim Crow, Jacob Moorer proved to be a resilient and effective lawyer. He was one of the first true civil rights lawyers in South Carolina.
U.S Census, 1870; Catalogue of Claflin University and South Carolina Agricultural College and Mechanics’ Institute, Orangeburg, S.C. 1879–1880 through 1893–1894; Charleston News and Courier, Apr. 21, 1910, p. 1; P.F. Henderson, D.S. Henderson, JR., and T.R. Henderson, Eds. Life and Addresses of D.S. Henderson, 110–111 (Columbia: R.L. Bryan 1922); The Minority Report of the Committee (House Report No. 2502, Part 1, 51st Cong. 1st Session, pp. 1–25) June 20, 1890. House Report No. 1229, 54 Congress, 1st Session, April 13, 1896, pp. 18–20. United States, House of Representatives, 58th Congress, 2d Session, Report No. 17, Alexander D. Dantzler v. Asbury F. Lever, March 18, 1904. New York Times, March 19, 1904. Orangeburg County Court Civil Calendars (1925–1938) (Microfilm Roll, SC State Archives Call Number L-38015); Orangeburg County Court Criminal Dockets (1925–1942) (Microfilm Roll, SC State Archives Call Number L-38016); Joan A. Sherman, ed., Collected Black Women’s Poetry, (Oxford U. Press 1988) at xxxii. The (Columbia) Palmetto Leader, Oct. 1, 1927 and Oct. 27, 1927.