Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Flashback Friday: Isaac Lawrence Purcell and the Higher Ed. Color Line

January 18th, 2013 by Ajuan Mance

Attorney Isaac Lawrence Purcell (1857-1930)


Among the African American men and women profiled in Dr. D.W. Culp’s Twentieth Century Negro Literature; Or, a Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro (1902) is attorney Isaac Lawrence Purcell. Purcell’s post-secondary education exemplifies the South’s rapid action to roll back the civil rights gains made by Black people immediately after the end of the Civil War. There is no coincidence that Purcell and other African American students were ousted from South Carolina in 1877, the year that the Hayes-Tilden Compromise effectively ended Reconstruction.  Culp recounts Purcell’s struggles and achievements in the following profile:

Isaac Lawrence Purcell, the subject of this sketch, was born July 17, 1857, in Winnsboro, S. C. His father, John W. Purcell, by occupation a carpenter, was born in 1832 in Charleston, S. C., being one of the old free families.

Isaac Lawrence first attended a school provided by the Episcopal Church for Colored youths. He afterwards attended the public schools of his city and, in 1871, entered Brainard Institute, Chester, S. C., where he remained one term. In 1872 he entered Biddle University at Charlotte, N. C., where he remained until in the Fall of 1873, when the color line was removed at the South Carolina University. He entered the competitive examination for the scholarship in the South Carolina University from his county, being the only Colored applicant. In the Fall of 1873 he entered the South Carolina University, where he remained until the Spring of 1877, when the act of the Legislature of the State went into effect again drawing the color line, so he with the other Colored boys had to leave.

Mr. Purcell returned home, and under his father’s instructions learned the carpenter’s trade. He went to Palatka, Fla., in 1885, where he studied law, and was admitted to practice law in the Circuit and inferior courts October 8, 1889, and at once commenced the active work of his chosen profession at Palatka, Fla.

At the first term of the Circuit Court after his admittance he represented plaintiffs in several large damage suits, two against the city of Palatka; in both he got verdict for his clients; one was appealed to the Supreme Court. He was admitted to the State Supreme Court January 19, 1891, where he has successfully represented many cases. January 19, 1897, he was admitted to the United States Circuit and District Courts, and November 8, 1901, was duly admitted to the Supreme Court of the United States. He has represented some of the most important cases coming before the courts of his State. He came to Pensacola, his present home, in February, 1899, and has by his energy and ability built up a fine and growing business.

In politics he is a Republican, and has attended as a delegate every State, congressional and county convention since coming to the State, several times presided over State and congressional conventions, was for twelve years chairman of the Republican Executive Committee of his county, Putnam. For many years an alderman of the city of Palatka, Fla. In 1895 he was elected as a delegate to the Republican National Convention which convened in St. Louis, 1896. He has never held any office of profit, always honest and fearless in his opinions and his advocacy of right.

His private life has always been consistent; while not a member of any religious denomination, always attends the services of the Episcopal Church; is a temperate man; is generous and kind in disposition; was married October 24, 1895, to Miss E. L. Andrews, of Orangeburg, S. C.

Ajuan Mance


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