Walkabout: A Career in Justice-Sumner H. Lark, Esq.

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    (Carlton Nursing Home, built as the Colored YMCA in 1918. Sumner H. Lark was one of the founders. Photograph: Property Shark)

    On January 28, 1910, Henry P. Molloy, Clerk of the County of Kings and Clerk of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, put his official stamp on the papers authorizing the incorporation and establishment of the Hannibal Democratic Club. This would be a new political club, and they would be seeking, like many others before and after them, a place to meet, perhaps even a building of their own, as well as the means and disposition to attract new members to the cause. What made this club so special and notable can be summed up in the second clause of their club’s mission statement: “To do any and all things necessary to be done in order to form a pleasant and harmonious union, understanding and relation with the Democratic Party of Kings County and the State and Nation… to secure justice to the members of the Ethiopian Race and insure tranquility in their homes; to provide for a common and united defense where the interest of the Ethiopian is involved; and to promote the general welfare of the members of the Club and of the Ethiopian Race in general, and to secure the blessings of liberty under that clause of the State and Federal Constitutions which protects life, liberty and property to ourselves and to our posterity.” This was the establishment of Brooklyn’s first African-American Democratic club. Six men were responsible for its establishment. One of them was Sumner H. Lark. This is his story.

    Sumner H. Lark was born in Hamburg, South Carolina, in 1874. His father had been a slave. He attended school in Augusta, Georgia, and in 1897, graduated from Howard University, long considered the nation’s most prestigious black college. He went back to Georgia, and taught at the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, a very successful school founded by African-American educator Lucy Craft Laney, in Augusta. Lark taught physics and chemistry, and in his free time published and edited a daily paper called “the South”.

    In 1900, he moved north to Brooklyn, where he opened his printing business at 158 Lawrence Street, between Fulton and Willoughby Streets. That particular building is no longer there. In 1908 he established a weekly newspaper for the black community called “The Eye”. The paper was pro-Democratic Party, something quite different for most black folks, who had embraced the Party of Lincoln, the Republicans, for as long as they had been able to vote. Keeping in mind, also, that New York’s Democratic Party was also the party of Tammany Hall, which was corrupt to the bone, and was heavily Irish and immigrant based, groups that had been at odds with the aspirations of New York’s African American community since the Civil War and the Draft Riots, mostly in fights for jobs, housing, equality, and the race to get from the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

    However, by 1910, Lark and six other prominent local African-American men decided to start the Hannibal Club. In their incorporation mission statement, they spoke of how the Party of Lincoln had abandoned black people. They said that Republicans were so sure of the black vote that they disregarded their political needs, as they knew blacks would support them, as they had always done. What really pushed them over the edge was the infamous Brownsville Texas Affair of 1906. The 25th Infantry, an all-black unit stationed at nearby Fort Brown, was subjected to constant harassment and Jim Crow treatment. One night in 1906, a white bartender was shot and killed, and a white policeman was wounded. Townspeople insisted that the black soldiers had shot them, even though the unit’s white commanding officers would testify that all of the men were on base, having been banned from the town.

    As the case investigation progressed, townspeople, including the mayor, came up with shell casings and other “evidence” showing that the soldier’s rifles had fired the shots. Even though this so-called “evidence” was blatantly bogus, it was accepted. The soldiers on the base were pressured to name the shooters. When no names emerged, a “conspiracy of silence” was declared, and without any trial, hearing or opportunity to confront their accusers, as guaranteed by the Constitution, the Army, backed by the recommendation of President Roosevelt, dishonorably discharged 167 members of the regiment, barring them from their pensions, or from working in a military or civil service job. Some of the men had been in the military for almost twenty years, and their pensions, not to mention their reputations, were gone forever.

    The nation’s black community, as well as much of the white community, was livid and outraged. Yet, in spite of all of the calls for Roosevelt to reconsider, or investigate further, he stuck to his decision. The most prominent African-Americans of the day, including Booker T. Washington, who had dined with the President at the White House, asked him to change his mind, but he was totally ignored. W.E.B. DuBois, the outspoken African American leader, told black America that it was time to stop blindly supporting Roosevelt and a Republican party that didn’t respect them. He was among the many black voters who started to turn to the Democratic Party as an alternative. Sumner Lark and the Hannibal Club were a direct result of this action.

    It was obvious to Lark that the only way for blacks to obtain their rights in the United States was to become experts in the law. In 1913, at the age of thirty-nine, he applied to Brooklyn Law School. On his application, where it asked about his employers, he wrote that “he had never been employed, but had been an employer for 15 years.” While still a law student, in 1915, he was a participant in the National Negro Exposition held in Richmond, Virginia. The Exhibition was commissioned by Congress, and commemorated the achievements of African Americans in the 50 years since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. He wrote in an essay in the souvenir program that in order for black people to enjoy the full measure of citizenship, some needed to become lawyers. He said, “He who would have liberty, must be vigilant; he who would get his rights, must have a lawyer.”

    He knew of what he spoke. In 1916, Lark graduated from Brooklyn Law School. He sat for the Bar the same year, and in his application, wrote that he had filed suit multiple times in his printing business; for discrimination and for payment disputes. He wrote that his initial reason for become a lawyer was to protect his business and his rights, but his education had taught him that his law degree meant a great deal more than that, and could be used to protect the rights of his people, and all people without a legal voice. He handily passed the bar.

    In 1922, at the age of forty-nine, Sumner Lark applied for a job with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. If he got the job, he would be following in the sole footsteps of Rufus L. Perry, who in 1895 became the first African American to hold the job of Assistant District Attorney in Kings County. Perry was also one of the six men who founded the Hannibal Club, and was its first president. The District Attorney at the time was John E. Ruston, and on January 1, 1923, Ruston appointed seventeen attorneys to his office. Thirteen of them were appointed Assistant District Attorneys, and four of them appointed as Deputy ADA’s. In spite of his background and experience, Lark was hired as a Deputy ADA. One of the ADA’s was hired at $5,000 a year, the others between $6,000 and $12,000. Lark was paid $4,000 a year, and the only female hired, also a Deputy ADA, made even less than he did.

    Being the first, or even second, African American in XXX job can be difficult, to say the least, and given the time, when black people were still segregated in education, the military, housing, and much of general life in the 1920’s, Lark did not have it easy. The New York Times, in an article about various appointments of the day, noted that Mr. Lark was “the first colored man to hold a position in the Kings County DA’s office.” (Not quite true, Perry was.) They also went on to list his $4,000 salary, the only mention of a dollar amount in an article which told of the appointment of over a dozen other people. A year later, in January of 1924, he was still a Deputy ADA, and still making less money than the others, with no record of a promotion or raise, unlike everyone else in the office. By March of 1924, he had left the District Attorney’s office, and gone back into private practice.

    It’s not known if he continued his printing business, but Sumner Lark was still a busy man. He was married, and he and his wife, Virginia, had seven children. He is listed as living and/or working in several different locations in Downtown Brooklyn, but his home may have been at 1717 Bergen Street, which would be right across the street from the present day Weeksville Heritage Center. Now there is a housing project in that location. He remained busy with the cause of advancing the rights of black people for the rest of his life. He was a founder of the Negro YMCA in Brooklyn, which was on Carlton Place in Fort Greene. He was also a member of the Elks, and the Siloam Presbyterian Church, which was on Lafayette Avenue at that time. In the late 1920’s he founded a resort development called Larksburg, near Peekskill, which he had hopes of building as a vacation colony where black members were more than welcome, unlike everywhere else.

    Sumner H. Lark died in June of 1931, quite young, at the age of 57. He may have been a giant in the black community, but he had issues with his wife, and carried them past his death. He famously left her $1.00 in his will, with a statement that she would probably tear that up; like she tore up a ten dollar bill he had given her for to buy groceries for his children. His estate of over $6,000 was divided up equally between their seven children, and his two oldest sons were the recipients of any other parts of his estate. He also left a brother and two sisters. He wrote in his will that his wife had deserted him while he was struggling to get through law school. He certainly knew how to hold onto a grudge. His funeral was at Siloam Presbyterian, and he was buried at Larksburg, but the property was sold soon afterward.

    In spite of going out on a bit of a sour note, Sumner Lark left a powerful legacy. It would be interesting to trace the influence and goings on of the Hannibal Club, as well as its longevity. They were certainly correct in thinking that the Democratic Party would someday welcome black voters into the fold. In 1972, Richard Nixon issued a presidential pardon and honorable discharges to all 167 members of the 25th Infantry who had been dishonorably discharged in the Brownsville Incident. It was determined that they had been falsely accused and convicted. They were almost all posthumous, as only two were still alive. In 1973, the only remaining soldier, Dorrie Willis, was given a tax free pension of $25,000 in back pay.

    Today, the Brooklyn Law School has a scholarship in Sumner Lark’s name, given to a minority student with great promise. In 2001, Charles Hynes, then and now the Brooklyn DA, posthumously promoted Sumner Lark to Assistant District Attorney, giving him the title he should have been given in 1923. Many of Lark’s writings are stored at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem. Incidentally, there is still a Larksburg Avenue in Putnam Valley, near Peekskill, now a very wealthy area. Sumner H. Lark’s legacy?

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