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George Napier Perkins was an African-American lawyer and newspaper publisher. Born a slave, he went on to become a major civil rights activist in both Arkansas and Oklahoma.
George Napier Perkins was born to Moses Perkins and Millie Perkins. However, given the public record of the time, there is some discrepancy as to facts surrounding his birth; U.S. Civil War pension records list his birthday and birthplace as January 1, 1841, in Williamson County, Tennessee, while other sources list him as born on January 1, 1842, in Washington County, Tennessee. He received a limited education in Tennessee before the family moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County) when he was fifteen. The move was more likely a product of Perkins’s owners moving to Arkansas, a common migration of the time, than it was a change in the ownership of Perkins and his parents. Perkins served in the Union army during the Civil War, starting as a private and ultimately achieving the rank of first sergeant in the U.S. Fifty-Seventh Colored Infantry, Company C.
Following the war, Perkins married Maggie A. Dillard of Fort Smith (Sebastian County) on January 30, 1867; they had no children. After attending law school at night, he was admitted to the Arkansas bar in 1871. He served as a justice of the peace in Little Rock for six years, and he was a member of the city council for four. Representing Pulaski County, Perkins was one of eight African-American delegates to the 1874 Arkansas Constitutional Convention. Perkins was outspoken in his belief that the state’s blacks expected that the rights they had been given at the 1868 convention would be continued, but at the same time, he was highly suspicious of the majority whites’ motives, fearing that the convention would be used by Democrats to limit black citizens’ rights. While his fears were borne out when a poll tax proposal was introduced early in the proceedings, the African-American delegation was able to lead an effort to defeat the provision.
Ultimately, however, with the end of Reconstruction coming after the election of 1876, Perkins’s fears did become a reality. He was an active participant on the side of Joseph Brooks in the Brooks-Baxter War of 1874 in the hope that he would later be rewarded, and Perkins also represented Arkansas at the National Conference of Colored Men in Nashville, Tennessee, in May 1879. There, he was a member of the Migration Committee, which urged that there be a study of the western lands to which growing numbers of blacks were going. Perkins would eventually join their numbers. In the meantime, however, all of these actions were part of his continuing efforts to protect the rights of black citizens, while also seeking increased influence and participation for African Americans in the Republican Party. But it was a difficult task, with the impending passage by the Arkansas General Assembly of the Separate Coach Act and a formalization of the developing Jim Crow society in the state. In 1890, Perkins, who had publicly opposed the act, headed to the Oklahoma Territory because he believed that it offered more opportunity for African Americans.
Upon arriving in Oklahoma, Perkins quickly became involved in civic life. He served as an alternate delegate to the territory’s Republican convention in 1891, and he was also on the city council in Guthrie for eight years while also serving as a justice of the peace. Then, in 1896, he launched an unsuccessful candidacy for police judge in Guthrie. Seeking to expand his influence, Perkins moved into the world of journalism, buying and then serving as editor of the Oklahoma Guide newspaper. It ultimately became the longest continuously published black-owned weekly in the Oklahoma Territory. In addition to using the paper to encourage African Americans to move to Oklahoma, the paper, under Perkins’s leadership, was also an active advocate of black rights while serving as a voice against white fear of black domination. Actively involved in the community of Guthrie, Perkins played a major role in the founding of the town’s Excelsior Library in 1908, an establishment believed to be the first African-American library in Oklahoma.
Perkins died on October 6, 1914.
For additional information:
“George Napier Perkins.” Arkansas Black Lawyers. http://arkansasblacklawyers.uark.edu/lawyers/gnperkins.html (accessed November 17, 2017).
“George Napier Perkins (1842–1914).” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society. http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=PE016 (accessed November 17, 2017).
Kilpatrick, Judith. “(EXTRA)Ordinary Men: African American Lawyers and Civil Rights in Arkansas before 1950.” Arkansas Law Review 53, no. 2 (2000): 299–399.
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated 11/17/2017
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