A Brief History of Black Lawyers in Kansas: The Sayers Family
At the conclusion of Black History Month, we want to highlight one dynamic legal family and their contributions to the Kansas bar.
It is difficult to know many of the details in documenting the activities of black lawyers in Kansas prior to the early 20th century.
But, we do know that at that time W.L. Sayers and John Q. Sayers of Hill City, E. Clark of Lawrence, T. Bell of Leavenworth and I.F. Bradley, Sr. of Kansas City had established "enviable reputations as able and fearless trial lawyers, Clark and Bradley also served as Justices of the Peace in Lawrence and Kansas City."
The Sayers family is one of the most distinguished in the history of the Kansas bar. The family moved to Nicodemus from Nebraska in the late 1880"s and even with many obstacles in their path toward formal education the two sons, W.L. and John Q., "gained fame in legal circles. W.L. began to teach school at the age of 16 and he started to read law in the office of G.W. Jones in Hill City shortly thereafter. Before the turn of the century, he was admitted to the bar, engaged in private practice, and in 1900 was elected county attorney. He won the office again in 1912 and 1914. in addition to the practice of law, he engaged in innumerable business and civic activities."
"John Q. Sayers, seven years his brother's junior, also served as Graham county attorney and with W.L. built a wide-ranging practice. Both were highly successful in the courtroom and it was reported that in one term of the district court in Graham County 32 cases appeared before the bench. W.L. arguing for one side or the other, won every case. He did not talk much about his successes but he did mention once that John had beaten him several times."
John was also willing to comment on his brother's achievements, telling the Kansas City Star on one occasion: "The trouble is he's twice as good as ever when he comes up against me in court...You never know what he's got up his sleeve until he breaks loose with it, at the most embarrassing moment possible."
W. L. Sayers was recognized by one prominent white lawyer as he described Bill: " Bill is deceptively smoothe in the courtroom ...Bill leads witnesses into his confidence with his mild manners and magnetic charm until they have told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but, whether they originally intended to or not...He never forgets a case or a fact. In fact, he is a walking lawbook."
Another member of the family, W.L.'s son, Wendell, graduated from Washburn Law School, practiced law in Colorado, and has served with distinction in the Colorado attorney general's office.
The Sayers family clearly made a difference in the Kansas legal community, and they continue to do so. The Kansas Bar expresses gratitude to these early lawyers for their perseverance, dedication, and commitment to building a diverse, civic-minded, and accomplished legal community in Kansas.
Reference: Material for this post was derived from "Requisite Learning and Good Moral Character: A History of the Kansas Bench and Bar" written by Robert W. Richmond of the Kansas Historical Society and published by the Kansas Bar Association in 1982.