Page 13 of the nomination form contains this arresting statement: “Until recently the case of Benjamin Jones and Fanny Guatier, Plaintiffs v. Berlin Realty Company, a corporation, Defendant, has been an obscure footnote to history. But observers are now not just rediscovering the case itself, but also reminding us that the legal arguments against racial covenants used by Plaintiffs’ attorney Charles S. Darden in this case — and adopted by the Los Angeles Superior Court judge in ruling favorably for the Plaintiffs — preceded and foresaw what became the notable winning argument of later precedent-setting “Sugar Hill” case that took place in Los Angeles in 1945.” That case, involving actors Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers‘ fight against racially restrictive covenants, is credited with being the first to cite the 14th Amendment as justification for overturning such covenants. That recognition, however, more properly belongs to Jones and Gautier — and the arguing attorney, Wilson’s own Charles S. Darden — which has been overlooked because it did not rise to California’s Court of Appeals. Read more about Darden’s innovative arguments below.
Last week, Wayne County Public Library presented Part II of “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History,” Wayne County’s contribution to She Changed the World: North Carolina Woman Breaking Barriers, an initiative by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to celebrate the achievements of North Carolina women and explore the diversity of their experiences and impact on our history. Part II focuses on Goldsboro native Ruth Whitehead Whaley, the first African-American woman admitted to the North Carolina bar.
My thanks to Local History librarians Marty Tschetter and Paul Saylors for inviting me to contribute remarks on the influence Ms. Whaley has had on my mission in Black Wide-Awake and the importance of stories like hers.
This case reached the North Carolina Supreme Court on appeal from Wilson County Superior Court.
In summary, the lower court convicted Sylvester Goffney of housebreaking. He appealed; the Supreme Court reversed the decision and dismissed the case.
Goffney appealed on three grounds, the first two of which were deemed without merit. The third: “It is contended by the learned counsel for defendant in a well-prepared brief that, upon the state’s evidence, no crime has been committed, and with this position we fully agree.”
George Barnes and Joe Barnes were partners in Barnes Brothers, a business that Goffney was alleged to have broken into. One of the Barneses testified: “I know the defendant, have known him for four years. He has been in my employ for several years, during which time I found him honest. He assisted me in my store and business a portion of the time. In consequence of statements made to me by Richard Farmer, a negro boy in my employ, I instructed Richard to induce [Goffney] to break in my store. On the night of July 7th Policeman Wynne, myself, and others watched the store, and about 12 o’clock we saw the defendant, Sylvester Goffney, and Richard Farmer go to the store, and saw defendant, Goffney, remove tacks holding a window pane, and remove the window, and enter the store. Richard Farmer immediately afterwards also entered the store through the same window. Policeman Wynne, myself, and others, who were watching the store, after firing pistols, entered the store, and arrested the defendant, Goffney, and required said Farmer to accompany us.” The only other witness corroborated Barnes.
The court’s determination: In the case at bar it appears that Barnes, the owner of the building entered, directed his servant Richard Farmer to induce the defendant to break in his (Barnes’) store; that the servant obeyed his orders, and that he and defendant entered the store together, and that Barnes was present watching them, and arrested defendant after he entered.
If it were possible to hold the defendant guilty of a felony under such circumstances, then Barnes could be likewise convicted of feloniously breaking and entering his own store, for he was present, aiding and abetting the entry of the defendant and induced him to enter. That would of course be a legal absurdity.
“Upon the facts in evidence, no crime was committed because the entry was with the consent and at the instance of the owner of the property. His honor should have directed a verdict of not guilty. Reversed, and proceeding dismissed.”
Here’s how the Wilson Daily Times reported the trial:
Sylvester Goffney had recently left their employ to go work for veterinarian Elijah L. Reid. The Barneses’ had regarded him as a trustworthy employee.
One of the Barnes brothers slept on a cot in the store. Goffney stopped by to visit, fell asleep and spent the night in the store.
The next day, Richard Farmer, an employee described as a “little boy” or “little negro,” cautioned Barnes that Goffney had solicited his help to rob the store — and cut Barnes’ head off.
The next time Goffney visited, Barnes refused to let him in. He later heard someone try the door, fired a shot, and all went quiet.
Barnes then directed Farmer to conspire with Goffney to break into the store. Barnes and a policeman hid while Farmer and Goffney entered through a window, then arrested both.
On the stand, Farmer testified that Goffney also planned to rob the restaurant of Richard Gaither, “a cripple and blind negro” and “fix” his wife.
Two months later, the Times reported a verdict:
Wilson Daily Times, 8 September 1911.
In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: teamster William Gwaltney [Goffney], 56; wife Courtney, 50; step-son John Bunn, 25, blaksmith; and nephew Sylvester Gwaltney, 6.
In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Stantonsburg Street, widow Courtney Goffney, 50; Ada Battle, 30(?), graded school teacher; and lodger Sylvester Goffney, 16, factory laborer.
In the 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Goffney Sylvester lab h 409 Stantonsburg Road
In 1914, Sylvester Goffney was designated beneficiary of the estate of his aunt, Courtney Goffney.
In 1918, Sylvester Goffney registered for the World War I draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 10 August 1894 in WIlson; resided at 147 Suggs Street, Wilson; and was unemployed. [Goffney signed his card with a firm, strong signature, evidence of a good education and opportunity to practice.]
In the 1920 census of Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan: auto factory laborer Sylvester Goffney, 25, was a lodger in the household of Ida L. Taylor, 42, on Saint Antoine Street.
In the 1930 census of Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan: at 2135 Riopelle Street, Sylvester Goffney, 35, roomer, porter in barbershop.
In January 1937, Sylvester Goffney applied for a Social Security number. Per his application, he was born 10 August 1894 in WIlson, North Carolina, to Christopher Goffney and Kate McCowan.
In the 1940 census of River Rouge, Wayne County, Michigan: renting at 450 Holford Street, Sylvester Goffney, 45, porter at veterans hospital, and wife Mattie, 41, confectionery clerk.
In 1942, Sylvester Oliver Goffney registered for the World War II draft in Wayne County, Michigan. Per his registration card, he was born 10 August 1894 in Wilson, N.C.; lived at 450 Holford Street, River Rouge, Michigan; his contact was Mrs. P. Henry, 475 Holford; and he was unemployed.
In the 1947 Wyandotte, Michigan, city directory: Goffney Sylvester (Mattie) conf 518 Elliott h 516 [Elliott]
Sylvester Goffney died 22 March 1948 in River Rouge, Wayne County, Michigan. Per his death certificate, he was born 10 August 1894 in Wilson, N.C., and was married.
During our conversation in February, Samuel C. Lathan told me that Peter Lupe was the only black person “allowed” to sell beer on the 500 block of East Nash. This piece, floating somewhere between news and society column, supports Mr. Lathan’s observation.
Thomas’ first bit of “triviata” — Attorney George Tomlinson appeared at an alderman meeting on behalf of Willie Prince to complain that the police were showing favoritism toward Lupe while harassing Prince and others and that Prince’s on-premise wine license had been revoked, but Lupe remained free to pour. City tax collector Richard R. Smiley step up to resolve part of Prince’s complaint by revoking Lupe’s license on the spot.
The second item — One Saturday night, exactly five minutes after a “negro woman” was booked on a liquor charge, Lupe bonded her out.
The third — The police arrested James Patrick on a vagrancy charge and found his pockets full of “good luck negro charms.” (Again, “jo-mo.” Was this actually a local variant on “mojo”?) Patrick explained that, in exchange for rent, he had promised to get his landlady’s boyfriend to come back. [Sidenote: Vagrancy laws essentially criminalized joblessness and were wielded to harass poor people, especially those of color. After a number of constitutional challenges, in the 1960s most vagrancy laws were replaced by statutes prohibiting more specific behavior, such as public intoxication or disorderly conduct.]
State of North Carolina, Wilson County } Court of Pleas & Quarter Sessions October Term 1859
The Jurors for the State aforesaid upon their oath present that Gray Powel a free negro late of the county of Wilson on the 1st day of June AD 1859 at & in the said county unlawfully did migrate into the State of North Carolina contrary to the provisions of the act of the general assembly in such cases made & provided & that the said Gray Powel afterwards to wit up to this time doth yet remain in said State & in the county aforesaid contrary to the form of the Statute in each case made & provided & against the peace & dignity of the State /s/ B.B. Barnes Solicitor
In the 1850 census of Stephen Powell, 47, wife Synthia, 36, and children Gray, 9, Queen Anne, 8, Dolly, 7, Crockett, 3, and Noab, 1. [If this is the same Gray Powell, it suggests that he left his birth state prior to 1859, then returned, an act considered an “unlawful migration.”]
Slave Records, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives.
Margarett was the name of the mother of the children. Oscar & Marcus, two colored children bound to B.H. Blount their former master by Wilson County Court. The mother of these children is dead and has been for several years. Samberry Battle did have the mother of the children for a wife & by her begot one child who is now of age & whose name is William. After the birth of William the mother became intimate with another man, by name Hillman, by whom she had two children, James & [illegible]. After the birth of the first of these two Samberry left the mother on account of her infidelity and took another woman and never after had anything to do with the mother of these. Marcus has a different father from Oscar, and there is yet another child by a different father. It is notorious among negros & whites that Samberry is not the father of any of the children except William and never set up a claim to them, until recently. He has never mentioned the mother to B.H. Blount in whose custody the children have always been. The grandmother of the children is living under the protection of B.H. Blount who will not see her suffer and said Grandmother protests against the claim of Samberry Battle. The fathers of the two children referred to above if living are not in this country & if so could not claim them as they were both begotten illegitimately. Therefore the binding by the Court without Notice to them is valid. The binding was regular & in accordance to law.
Roll 56, Miscellaneous Records, Rocky Mount Assistant Superintendent’s Records, North Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1863-1872, National Archives and Records Administration images, www.familysearch.org.
The second of Charles H. and Dinah Scarborough Darden’s sons, Charles Sylvester Darden made his mark far from home — in Los Angeles, California. Though he largely eluded the decennial censuses, the trajectory of Darden’s career as a hard-charging attorney can be glimpsed in contemporary newspapers and other documents.
In the 1880 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Charles Darden, 26; wife Diana, 21; and children John, 3, Annie, 2, and Charlie, 9 months.
Charles Darden received an undergraduate degree at Howard University and graduated from its law school in 1904.
The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 31 May 1904.
In short order, Darden headed West and in 1906 passed the examination for admission to the California bar. He was one of the first licensed African-American lawyers in the state.
The anomaly of Darden’s position early caught the attention of the local press, and in 1907 this mocking piece appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
Los Angeles Times, 25 December 1907.
Within his community, however, Darden was taken seriously. In May 1908, his place in the political life of black Los Angeles was signaled by his inclusion among leaders calling for a protest against Republican presidential nominee William H. Taft for his recommendation that President Theodore Roosevelt dismiss black soldiers blamed for murder in the Brownsville Affair.
Los Angeles Herald, 31 May 1908.
That same year, Darden was instrumental in organizing a Howard University alumni association in Los Angeles. The Times covered the group’s annual banquet in 1909.
Los Angeles Times, 11 February 1909.
By 1911, Darden had entered the arena in which he had the greatest impact — real estate development and litigation. That year, as the first black lawyer to argue before the California Supreme Court, Darden attacked racially restrictive covenants
By 1913, he and ten others incorporated the Co-operative Commercial Investment Company.
Los Angeles Times, 27 November 1913.
He also was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States in 1913.
Journal of the Supreme Court of the United States.
In 1915, black police officer Homer L. Garrott purchased a home in the Angeles Park subdivision of Los Angeles. Angeles Park lots were covered by a restrictive covenant prohibiting sales to black, Japanese and Chinese buyers, and the Title Guarantee Company sued to enforce it. Charles S. Darden stepped up to defend Garrott. A Superior Court judge ruled in Garrott’s favor, striking down race restrictions as null and void. Angeles Park and the title company appealed, and the case reached the California State Supreme Court in 1919. The ruling was affirmed, but bizarrely undercut by the court’s decision in another case upholding the validity of occupancy clauses. (For more re Garrott, see Douglas Flamming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (2005)).
As the United States entered World War I, Darden got involved in protests over the forced retirement of African-American Colonel Charles Young in the wake of resistance by white officers balking at being outranked by a black man. In a letter to Dean Kelly Miller of Howard University, Darden also championed of the causes of Captain Benjamin O. Davis Sr. and a Captain Green, who had also been effectively sidelined.
Kansas City Sun, 21 July 1917.
Two months later, Darden wrote directly to the Secretary of the War Department, complaining that the applications of well-qualified young African-American men were being turned down “because of their color.” The response was terse and not entirely to the point: “At the present time no colored squadrons are being formed and applications from colored men for this branch of service cannot be considered for that reason.”
In 1918, Charles Sylvester Darden registered for the World War I draft in Los Angeles. Per his registration card, he was born 10 August 1879 in Wilson, North Carolina; resided at 224 South Spring, Los Angeles; was a self-employed lawyer at 407 Germain, Los Angeles; was 5’4″ and of medium build; and his nearest relative was Charles H. Darden, 110 Pender Street, Wilson, North Carolina.
“Incorporations,” Southwest Builder and Contractor, volume 57, number 11 (18 March 1921).
The beach at Santa Monica’s Bay Street, popular with African-Americans in the early 20th century, was derogatorily called The Inkwell. While they appreciated the access to the Pacific Ocean that the beach represented, local African-American leaders also wanted an end to all efforts to inhibit their freedom to use all public beaches. In 1922, the Santa Monica Bay Protective League attempted to purge African Americans from the city’s shoreline by blocking an effort by the Ocean Frontage Syndicate, an African American investment group led by Norman O. Houston and Charles S. Darden, to develop a resort with beach access at the base of Pico Boulevard. Santa Monica officials quickly enacted zoning laws to deny the Ocean Frontage Syndicate beach front property, changing such regulations once whites bought the land and made similar development proposals.
In 1940, Darden partnered with two African-American doctors to form the Los Angeles Negro Professional Men’s Athletic Club, a venue for boxing matches, ball games, dances and other affairs.
Pittsburgh Courier, 29 June 1940.
A whiff of scandal touched Darden in 1940, but failed to gain traction. He was held blameless in a fatal automobile accident on Anaheim’s Santa Ana Canyon Road. Darden apparently never married, and the paper was careful to note that his female companion was white.
Santa Ana Register, 27 August 1940.
In 1942, Charles S. Darden registered for the World War II draft. Per his registration card, he was born 10 August 1879 in Wilson, North Carolina; he resided at 1802 Central, Los Angeles; his phone number was PR 3750; he was employed as an attorney at 1802 Central; and his contact was C.L. Darden, Wilson, North Carolina.
Charles S. Darden died in March 1954 in Los Angeles.
The Daily Press (Newport News, Va.), 17 March 1954.
Photograph of Dardens courtesy of N.J. and C. Darden, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine; J. Clay Smith Jr., Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer 1844-1944 (1993).