02 February 2021

J. Gordon McPherson Was Removed From Jury Service Because White Men Objected to Serving with a Black Man

J. Gordon McPherson in 1903.
From the Seattle Republican 1903-07-31

On Feb 26 1900, J. Gordon McPherson (1869-1936), a Black man, was sworn in for jury duty in a SLC court. The next day he was excused by the Judge because the other 11 members of the jury- all white men- objected to his presence.

McPherson was the last juror chosen for the murder of trial of John H Benbrook. All 12 jurors immediately retired to their hotel as they were to be sequestered for the trial.

All the White jurors, led by Edward McCarrick, refused to eat in the same restaurant or share a hotel room with Mr. McPherson. They also refused to walk to the courthouse and ride the elevator with him.

A long-standing practice, in Utah and elsewhere, was to dismiss Black people from being considered for a jury by judging their character to be inadequate or by using peremptory challenge (excuse a potential juror without stating a cause).

McPherson was the 72nd juror drawn for this trial and the prosecution had already used all 15 of their peremptory challenges. The defense found him to be acceptable and of good character as Mr. McPherson came to SLC with the 24th Infantry (Buffalo Solders) and had recently been discharged from the Army with a grade of “Excellent” character, the highest rating possible. It was late at night and the defense accepted McPherson as the final juror.

When court began the next morning, McCarrick and the other jurors declared that they would not serve with a Black man and would rather go to jail for contempt of court. Judge Ogden Hiles and the opposing lawyers met in the Judge’s chambers and worked out an agreement to dismiss McPherson from the jury.

When court resumed the defense withdrew its acceptance of McPherson by using one of their remaining peremptory challenges. The defense also stated that Juror McCarrick was now biased and he was also dismissed. Two other White men were seated for the 12-member jury.

McPherson sued McCarrick for damages to his character but lost the case in the Utah Supreme Court.

J. Gordon McPherson soon left SLC for the West Coast where he became a well-known Preacher eventually known as “Black Billy Sunday.”

Sources: Des News 1900-02-27; SL Herald 1900-02-28

Some interesting quotes from the old newspapers:

1) Edward McCarrick, the White juror leading the charge against McPherson:
“When it comes to making me swallow a nigger, it won’t go down… When McPherson was accepted last night there was h—l to pay. I blame only one man- Judge Powers [the Defense Attorney]- he should have had more consideration for the feelings of the 11 white men on that jury. It is the first time in the history of Utah, so far as I know, that the attempt was ever made to have a black man sit with white men in a trial court of any kind. Had the effort been successful this time, a precedent would have been established that would have been a blot on the jurisprudence of the State. As it is, I believe that that sort of a proposition has received tis death blow.” (Des News 1900-02-27)

2) J. Gordon McPherson, the Black juror who was dismissed from service:
“I was raised in the South and may claim to know something of the prejudice against colored men, but I never saw anything in the South equal to this. It was not my desire to mingle with them in a social way at all or force myself upon them. And said as much to the other 11 jurors... I stand the equal of any white man living, before the law. If they do not want to associate with me, that is their privilege but as a citizen before the law I have my rights and I propose to maintain them.” (Des News 1900-02-27)
“Though I don’t want to be on the jury, I am indignant that my rights as an American citizen have been denied and trampled upon. There was no law against my serving on the jury yet in this state where they particularly preach the gospel of Christ, the equality of man, I have been cast out. This is outrageous. It is an insult to every colored man in Utah. It is a denial of a right and therefore tyranny.” (SL Herald Republican 1900-02-28)
J. Gordon McPherson later in life.
From the California Eagle, Aug 12 1916.

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