James Carroll Napier

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James Carroll Napier
Born(1845-06-09)9 June 1845[1]
Died21 April 1940(1940-04-21) (aged 94)
OccupationLawyer, politician
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Nettie De Ella Langston (1860–1938)
ChildrenCarrie Langston Napier (adopted; 1894–1918)
Parent(s)William Carroll Napier
Jane Elizabeth Watkins
James Carroll Napier (Engraved Signature).jpg

James Carroll Napier (June 9, 1845 – April 21, 1940) was an American businessman, lawyer, politician, and civil rights leader from Nashville, Tennessee, who served as Register of the Treasury from 1911 to 1913. He is one of only five African Americans to have their signatures on American currency. He was one of four African-American politicians appointed to high position under President William Howard Taft, and they were known as his "Black Cabinet." He was instrumental in founding civic institutions in Nashville to benefit the African-American business community and residents, including an emphasis on education.


James Carroll Napier was born into slavery to William Carroll Napier and Jane Elizabeth Napier (née Watkins), who were then enslaved [2] in Davidson County, Tennessee. His father was mixed race, the son of his White master, Dr. Elias Napier, and an enslaved mother named Judy.[3] The Napier family were freed by their master in 1848.[4]

The young Napier attended a private school for free black children in Nashville, until whites forced it to be closed in 1856.[5][6]

Napier's family moved to Ohio, a free state, and in 1859 the youth enrolled in Wilberforce College, which was founded cooperatively as a historically black college by the AME Church and the Methodist Church of Cincinnati. He later transferred to Oberlin College, the first American institution of higher learning to regularly admit female and black students in addition to white males. He left Oberlin in 1867 without a degree.

While working in Washington, DC, Napier earned his law degree from Howard University in 1872. There he met John Mercer Langston, his wife Caroline and their daughter Nettie. Langston was the first dean of Howard University's law school, which he developed.


After returning to Tennessee from Oberlin College, Napier had been appointed to serve as the Commissioner of Refugees and Abandoned Lands in Davidson County, for a year. He next moved to Washington, D.C. to serve a political appointment as State Department Clerk, the first African American to hold this office. While studying at Howard University for his law degree, he met the dean, John Mercer Langston, and his family, including daughter Nettie Langston.

After receiving his law degree, Napier returned to Nashville to set up his law practice. He and Nettie married in Washington, DC, and she moved to join him in his city. They adopted a daughter, Carrie. Nettie became active in women's clubs and activities to support education of African-American children.

Napier became influential in the city's African-American community. He was elected to the Nashville City Council[7] and the Tennessee Republican Executive Committee. Napier was elected as the first African-American president of the city council. He worked to hire African-American teachers for the black public schools in the segregated system, and to organize the Black Fire-engine Company, to serve black residents. Owing to his work in Nashville and his association with nationally known Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute, Napier had become an influential African-American leader.

In 1905 Napier founded a chapter in Nashville of the National Negro Business League, which had been founded by Washington five years before; Napier served as president of the local chapter. In 1904 he was a co-founder of the One Cent Savings Bank (later renamed the Citizens' Savings Bank and Trust Company and still operating as of 2017).

In 1905 Napier helped organize the 1905 Negro streetcar strike by customers to protest its segregated service. African Americans made up most of its customers, and boycotted the service for one year.[note 1][8] (It was not until 1958, with the formation of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council, that Nashville's African-American community laid the foundation for additional dismantling of institutional racial segregation in the city).[9]

Napier also presided over the Nashville Negro Board of Trade (now the Nashville Black Chamber of Commerce). He served on the boards of Fisk University, a historically black college located in the city, and Howard. He also was instrumental in gaining legislative approval to found Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University), a historically black college. He later served on the board of the Nashville Housing Authority, the first black person to do so. In 1910, he helped organize a Memphis, Tennessee chapter of Sigma Pi Phi, or Boulé, an organization of college-educated African-American men of high culture and status, along with Josiah T. Settle and some physicians in Memphis. The group said that "quality not numbers" was its aim for its membership.[8]

In 1911, Napier was appointed Register of the Treasury for William Howard Taft's administration. He was one of four African-American men appointed by Taft to high positions, and they were known as the "Black Cabinet".[10] He served until 1913, when he resigned in protest after Democratic President Woodrow Wilson broke with federal precedent to order racial segregation of work spaces, restrooms, and lunchrooms for federal employees of the Treasury Department. He ordered similar segregation at the Post Office and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to appease Southerners in his cabinet. In addition, in 1914 the Civil Service Commission began to require photographs with job applications, a means to screen out African Americans.[10]

Returning to Nashville from Washington, DC, Napier resumed his law practice and extensive civic activities.


After five months of illness, Napier died in Nashville, on April 21, 1940.[11]


Napier was granted an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Fisk University. In 1970 the Historical Commission of Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County erected a historical marker in the city to commemorate Napier's many accomplishments.[12] The J. C. Napier Homes, a housing project operated by MDHA, the successor to the Nashville Housing Authority, is named in his honor.


  1. ^ "Napier, James Carroll (1845–1940) – The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". Blackpast.org. Retrieved 2017-05-18.
  2. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-08-14. Retrieved 2016-04-07.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. ^ Phillips, Betsy (18 February 2016). "William Napier made a huge investment for his sons in an integrated Nashville he would not live to see". The Nashville Scene. Retrieved 7 May 2017.
  4. ^ Clark, Herbert L. (16 May 1990). "James Carroll Napier: National Negro Leader". Tennessee Historical Quarterly. 49 (4): 243–252. JSTOR 42626900.
  5. ^ "James Napier, businessman and more – African American Registry". Aaregistry.org. Retrieved 2017-05-18.
  6. ^ "Black Bottom – Entries – Tennessee Encyclopedia". Tennesseeencyclopedia.net. Retrieved 2017-05-18.
  7. ^ "James Carroll Napier (1845–1940) – Trials, Triumphs, and Transformations". Library.mtsu.edu. Retrieved 2017-05-18.
  8. ^ a b Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite 1880–1920 (p). University of Arkansas Press, 1990. p242
  9. ^ Wynn, "The Dawning of a New Day", p. 44.
  10. ^ a b Sosna, Morton (Autumn 1970). "The South in the Saddle: Racial Politics during the Wilson Years". Wisconsin Magazine of History. 54 (1): 30–49. JSTOR 4634581. In JSTOR
  11. ^ "Obituary: James Carroll Napier". Blacknashville.wordpress.com. 2 March 2008. Retrieved 2017-05-18.
  12. ^ "TN-NSH040 James Carroll Napier". Photos.historical-markers.org. Retrieved 2017-05-18.


  1. ^ Richard Henry Boyd, James Napier, Preston Taylor, and others organized a strike against Nashville's segregated streetcar service that lasted from July 1905 until July 1906. More information about this strike can be found in Bobby Lovett's A Black Man's Dream.