In 1889, William Hirt Hastings and William P. Thompson, both members of the Cherokee Nation, became the first two Native Americans to earn law degrees at Vanderbilt Law School. Both men grew up in what was then Indian Territory, and they were childhood friends. After graduation, Hastings and Hirt became law partners in what was then Tahlequah, Indian Territory.
Early on, the newly minted lawyers served on a commission formed by the Cherokee Nation to represent its interests after Congress passed the General Allotment Act of 1887, which sought to force indigenous people to assimilate by carving tribal landholdings into small plots, assigning them to tribal members as individually owned pieces of property, and then selling the surplus land to settlers. Their work, focusing on the disposition of land, included arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hastings was later named attorney general of the Cherokee Nation and was elected to represent Oklahoma in Congress, where he served for nearly two decades, and Thompson served as a commissioner of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma.
A decade later, James Willoughby Breedlove, Class of 1897, earned his law degree at Vanderbilt. Breedlove served as assistant treasurer of Cherokee Nation, was elected to the Oklahoma state legislature, and was a United States Commissioner.
James Burney McAlester, Class of 1898, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, was the starting left tackle on the Vanderbilt football team and a baseball star; he worked in business after earning his law degree. George W. Burris, Class of 1899, also of the Chickasaw Nation, had a long legal career, served as City Attorney of Stonewall, Oklahoma, and represented his nation in a joint Choctaw-Chickasaw delegation to Washington in 1928.
Joseph Goforth and Jacob Thompson, both of the Chickasaw Nation, earned law degrees in 1897 and 1898, respectively; Goforth became a county judge, and Thompson served in a number of administrative positions for the Chickasaw Nation.
Chickasaw students also attended the university, including the “academic department,” now known as Arts & Science, and Vanderbilt’s Engineering and Divinity schools.
Vanderbilt’s early Native American graduates are the subject of an exhibit in the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries at Vanderbilt University curated by legal historian Daniel J. Sharfstein.
“From 1885 to 1899, twelve Cherokee and Chickasaw students attended Vanderbilt. Indian Removal Policies were within the living memory of their parents and grandparents. Traveling the Trail of Tears in reserve, the students arrived at a new university built on ancestral territory. …they distinguished themselves in classrooms and on debating stages. Eight became lawyers, shaping tribal affairs from Indian Territory to Washington, D.C., Together, Vanderbilt’s first indigenous scholars represent a brief generation who sustained their nations through an era of forced assimilation,” Sharfstein writes in his introduction to the exhibit.
He notes that Cherokee students attended Vanderbilt on their own initiative, while the Chickasaw Nation sent students as a group with their education funded by a legislative act.
The exhibit, currently available to view online, includes photographs of the Native Americans as law students and attorneys.