EAST ST. LOUIS -- Noah Parden was born into conditions not uncommon for blacks in America's 19th century South. He picked cotton on a Georgia plantation and was forbidden to teach other blacks his rare ability to read.
But Parden eventually emerged as the first black attorney in St. Clair County, the first black person to become an assistant county prosecutor here, assistant city prosecutor in St. Louis and to argue successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Yet he is not a famous man, in legal circles or among the general public.
St. Clair County Circuit Judge Milton S. Wharton wants to change that. At Wharton's urging, state Rep. Wyvetter Younge says she plans to introduce a resolution next week in the Illinois General Assembly honoring Parden, who died in 1944 at age 76 in St. Louis.
"Mr. Parden represented the accomplishments of many black people of his era in spite of the awesome barriers that were placed before them," said Wharton, who is also the first black head of the St. Clair County Bar Association.
After he left the Georgia plantation, Parden moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., at age 15, where he went to high school.
He later studied for five years at Central Tennessee College, supporting himself working as a waiter, shoe-shiner and barber. He became a lawyer in 1891.
Only 15 years later, Parden found himself in the middle of a national scandal when he persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the scheduled execution of Ed Johnson, a black man wrongly convicted in 1906 of raping a white woman, according to the book "Contempt of Court: The Turn of the Century Lynching that Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism."
Despite the Supreme Court stay that Parden procured, a Tennessee mob lynched Johnson. For that, the Chattanooga sheriff and others were held in contempt of court by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Martial law was declared in Chattanooga. Troops were called in. Parden's life was threatened several times.
He also found himself in the middle of history when working as an assistant state's attorney in St. Clair County during the 1917 race riots in East St. Louis, some of the most deadly riots ever in America.
Parden "had to maintain a judicious composure and handle the situation with satin gloves," a newspaper reported at the time.
Parden's stepdaughter, Gertrude Polk, still lives in East St. Louis. She remembers the man few outsiders ever saw.
"After dinner, (Parden) would play the violin," Polk said recently. "He was very formal. ... He was a very fine gentleman."