Reference Entry

Napier, James Carroll

Maceo Crenshaw Dailey

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Napier, James Carroll

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politician, attorney, and businessman, was born on the western outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. His parents, William C. Napier and Jane E. (maiden name unknown), were slaves at the time of his birth but were freed in 1848. After manumission and a brief residency in Ohio William Napier moved his family to Nashville, where he established a livery stable business. James attended the black elementary and secondary schools of Nashville before entering Wilberforce University (1864–1866) and Oberlin College (1866–1868), both in Ohio.James Napier began his career as a race leader and politician during the Reconstruction era in Tennessee as Davidson County commissioner of refugees and abandoned lands in the Freedmen's Bureau. In 1870 he led a delegation of black Tennesseans to petition President Ulysses S. Grant and Congress for relief from politically motivated violence aimed at nullifying black voting strength, for removal of the state's conservative government, and for rejection of the state's 1870 constitution. Unsuccessful in this effort Napier and his delegation urged the president and Congress to establish a national school system and to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment in their home state.Napier subsequently received a position as a Treasury Department clerk in Washington, D.C., possibly the first African American to hold such a post. Under the tutelage of John Mercer Langston, the prominent black politician and acting president of Howard University, Napier entered Howard's law school in the District of Columbia. After obtaining a law degree in 1872 he returned to Nashville to begin a practice and in 1878 married Langston's only surviving daughter, Nettie Langston. Theirs was a childless union that lasted sixty years.Under presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and Chester A. Arthur, Napier held patronage appointments in the Nashville offices of the Internal Revenue Service, serving as a gauger (1879–1881), clerk (1883–1884), and deputy collector (1885). Owing to his business, legal, and politicalJames C. Napier, register of the U.S. Treasury, 1911–1913. (Library of Congress.) acumen Napier emerged as the ranking African American politician in Tennessee in the two decades after the Civil War. He served on the Nashville City Council from 1878 to 1889 and on the state Republican Party executive committee, was a delegate to six Republican National Conventions, and made an unsuccessful bid for election to the Fifth District congressional seat in 1898. As a city councilman Napier led successful efforts to hire the first African American schoolteachers in Nashville, to establish the city's first modern schools (including high school training) for African Americans, and to employ the city's first African American firefighters. In the 1890s, however, the rise to power of the “lily whites,” dedicated to the removal of blacks from political participation in the South, and the emergence of more outspoken, younger African American leaders such as Robert R. Church Jr. of Memphis curtailed Napier's influence in state and local politics.Napier remained a force to be reckoned with, however, because of his dignified manner, political connections, and behind-the-scenes approach to getting things done. His friendship and alliance with the educator Booker T. Washington in 1891 kept Napier in the inner circles of federal politics. He became a member of the so-called black cabinet that advised Republican presidents. Offered positions as consul to Bahia, Brazil, in 1906 and as consul general for Liberia in 1910, Napier refused both appointments. A recommendation from Washington led to Napier's appointment in 1911 as register of the U.S. Treasury, the most prestigious and highest federal position then available to an African American. Napier acquitted himself well in this position. Presiding over a staff of seventy-three, in addition to his official duties accounting for the receipt and expenditure of all public money, Napier found time to press for the continued development of the African American community. He testified before Congress in 1912 for passage of the Page Bill for equitable distribution of funds (set aside in the Morrill Acts of 1863 and 1890) for African American land-grant colleges in the South. Napier's efforts were to no avail. He resigned from his post two years later to protest President Woodrow Wilson's sanctioning of segregation in federal office facilities. After 1913 Napier retreated from involvement in national politics to focus exclusively on economic self-help in the black community.Napier used his influence as lawyer, lecturer, businessman, head of the Nashville Board of Trade, and organizer of a branch of the National Negro Business League (NNBL) to promote economic and educational development among African Americans. Aware of the collapse of the Freedmen's Bank and the resulting economic dislocation in the African American community during Reconstruction, Napier entered the banking business to provide saving, credit, and investment opportunities to blacks and to demonstrate the advantages, both personal and collective, of entrepreneurial endeavors. He used his own estate as collateral for funds to underwrite the first year's operation of the Nashville One-Cent Savings Bank in 1903. He went without salary as the cashier of the bank to ensure its success and development. He and Richard Henry Boyd, the founding president of the enterprise (later renamed the Citizens Savings Bank), steered it toward ultraconservative fiscal policies in lending and investment to guarantee the bank's financial success so that it might serve as a model for other black businessmen and bankers. The bank was founded to inspire “systematic saving among our people,” according to Napier. From its opening on 6 January 1904 (with deposits of $6,392 from 145 individuals), deposits of the Citizens Savings Bank reached a high of $209,942 within 35 years.Napier supported larger cooperative black capitalist endeavors by joining Booker T. Washington's NNBL, which first convened in Boston in 1900. This organization was designed to bring black businessmen from around the nation to annual meetings to discuss entrepreneurship as a means to individual and collective uplift in the black community. The 1903 annual NNBL meeting was held in Nashville, under the aegis of Napier, one of the vice presidents of the organization. Napier inherited the NNBL presidential mantle after Washington's death in 1915, serving until 1919. He attended the upstate New York Amenia Conference of 1916 and was one of the ranking Bookerites to-effect a successful but short-lived modus vivendi between the Washington and the W. E. B. Du Bois–NAACP factions vying for leadership of the black community.Napier continued to promote the idea of industrial development and training as an economic strategy to provide jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for blacks as one of the founders of Nashville's Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School for Negroes (later Tennessee State University). Serving as a trustee of Meharry Medical College, Fisk College, and Howard University, Napier also took a keen interest in higher education and publicly extolled the virtues of both higher and industrial education in preparing African Americans for “all the duties and responsibilities of life.” As trustee of the Anna T. Jeanes Fund, which supported educational opportunities for black southerners, Napier was instrumental in obtaining more than $75,965 between 1909 and 1926 for Tennessee and in establishing the organization's presence in twenty-eight counties in the state. Napier lectured frequently on medical jurisprudence at Meharry. In the 1920s he served as a member of the southern regional Commission on Interracial Cooperation, established to prevent violence and conflict between blacks and whites. Two years before his death in Nashville, Napier was appointed to the city's housing authority at age ninety-three. He was reported shortly after 1900 to have amassed personal wealth of more than one hundred thousand dollars; the value of his real estate was assessed at $43,016 at the time of his death.

Reference Entry.  1321 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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