VICKSBURG FACTS: Mollison fought for a better Mississippi

Published 8:00 am Friday, July 14, 2023

By Vera Ann Fedell | The Vicksburg Post

Did you know about the Vicksburg lawyer that helped shape Mississippi during the post-Reconstructive era?

Willis Elbert Mollison was a well-known African American attorney from Mississippi during the post-Reconstructive era, along with many other accomplishments. Mollison was born in Issaquena County in 1859. During the Civil War, Mollison learned how to read from a white woman who was originally from the North. In 1880, he attended Fisk University in Tennessee and Oberlin College in Ohio, according to the Mississippi Encyclopedia. 

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After returning to Mississippi, Mollison was appointed as the school superintendent for Issaquena County. He also began studying the law under Congressman Elza Jeffords to prepare for his bar examination. He was then admitted to the bar in 1881 by Judge B.F. Trimble. Mollison also served as clerk of the circuit and chancery courts of Issaquena County from 1883 to 1891. He aimed to become part of the statewide office but failed to gain the Republican nomination for secretary of state. This then led Mollison to be recruited to run on John Roy Lynch’s reform ticket; however, he still was not elected to statewide office.

Mollison then decided to move to Vicksburg to continue his law practice.

He was appointed by a white Democratic judge to serve as an acting district attorney. The announcement caused a commotion in Vicksburg, but Mollison had proven to be a skilled attorney. During his time in Vicksburg, Mollison would represent both Black and white clients. He also practiced law in nine other counties in Mississippi. Mollison went on to become well known for his civil cases including land cases, according to the Issaquena Geneology and History website. During his time as an attorney, he won nine appeals in the Mississippi Supreme Court and continued having a successful career even when Mississippi adopted the Jim Crow Constitution in 1890, according to the Mississippi Encyclopedia. 

Mollison was part of many professions, including being a teacher, superintendent, county official and lawyer. However, the list continues. He became the president of Lincoln Park Land Company, which was a major stockholder in the Lincoln Savings Bank of Vicksburg. He also became the director of the Mound Bayou Oil Mill and Manufacturing Company in Mound Bayou and was the owner of the National Star newspaper. But Mollison continued to remain active in the Republican Party with his various occupations. 

During Mollison’s affiliation with the Republican Party, he participated in many meetings to fight for mutual respect and representation between the white and black communities in Mississippi. During his speech at the Mississippi Convention in 1912, Mollison nominated another chairman that he thought would “better represent the state of Mississippi instead of another candidate that was part of the machine and performed its bidding.

“He stands every inch a man very foot a king. Unawed by influence and unbought by gain, he will make this convention a great chairman,” according to Clarion-Ledger, March 29, 1912. 

During the time when Theodore Roosevelt was looking to acquire the Republican presidential nomination, some of Mississippi’s political leaders were wanting to start an all-white party. Mollison and other Black Republicans fought back on this idea. He then spoke at the Redmond-Howard faction in regard to the many rumors about Roosevelt’s thoughts of a new party. 

According to Geoffery Cowan’s article from the Daily Beast, Mollison stated, “There is no place for any new party in Mississippi which violates the pledge of that foremost American, Theodore Roosevelt, that every man shall have a ‘square deal. We do not wish to do violence to the memory of the immortal Lincoln whose blood nurtured the tree of the Black man’s liberty. Colonel Roosevelt loves to liken himself to the martyred statesman … I do not believe his mighty arm, which a few short weeks ago was around the black man’s neck in entreaty and benediction, will be raised so soon to strike this black man down. He must do it before I can believe him weak enough or wicked enough to do this deed.”