@Book{ joens2012,
    author = {David A. Joens},
    title = {From Slave to State Legislator: John W. E. Thomas, Illinois' First African American Lawmaker},
    address = {Carbondale},
    publisher = {Southern Illinois University Press},
    year = 2012,

p. 51:

Following the 1878 election, Thomas began the serious study of law. He studied under the guidance of Kirk Hawes, of the law firm Hawes and Lawrence, located at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Monroe Streets in downtown Chicago. Hawes was a prominent Republican attorney in the city. In 1880, he was elected to the first of two terms as a superior court judge. Thomas received his law license on February 2, 1880, becoming only the sixth African American in Chicago to become an attorney.

Joens says there were more than 30 African American lawyers in Chicago by 1900 (perhaps this list from the County Cook Bar Association, which was formed in 1914).

p. 52:

However, becoming an attorney did not mean immediate acceptance into the legal community for African Americans. The Chicago Bar Association formed in 1874, but did not admit African Americans until the 1940s. Judge Bradwell attempted to have African American attorneys admitted to the association, but he never succeeded.

p. 52:

Thomas worked mainly as a police court lawyer, and his practice would prove lucrative. The Chicago Legal News later wrote of him that, “As a lawyer, Mr. Thomas’s business was principally at the Harrison Street Police Station, in defending criminals, signing their bonds and investing the proceeds in real estate.” The Legal News seemed to apologize for the type of law Thomas practiced, stating, “Notwithstanding the character of this business and the length of time Mr. Thomas was engaged in it, he was regarded by all who knew him as a man of honor and integrity.” Both the Chicago Chronicle and the Inter-Ocean agreed that Thomas spent most of his time as an attorney at the Harrison Street Police Station. The Chronicle added, “His chief interest was in criminal work and at the Harrison Street police court, where he was almost a daily visitor for ten years, he was in demand by his clients, white and black.”

According to Joens, “police courts were the bottom rung of the judicial ladder … administered by police magistrates, who were also justices of the peace,” who were gubernatorial appointees and did not have to have law degrees and sometimes ran court without any lawyers present at all (52).

p. 53:

In working at a police court, Thomas would have focused his practice on minor police matters involving petty criminals, gamblers, prostitutes, and repeat offenders that were brought from the adjoining jail where they were locked up. … The newspapers of the day and Chicago’s elite looked down on the police courts, with their corrupt police magistrates, their lack of attorneys, and their working-class clientele. The Chicago Evening Journal summed up this view of police courts in an 1890 editorial: “The police court system in Chicago, and other large cities, is an outrage upon law decency and humanity.” … These were the courts that were the closest to ordinary people and the ones that dealt with the everyday rights of the working people. In looking at statistics for 1890, Willrich found that justices of the peace handled more than 96 percent of all criminal case in Chicago.

He also notes that the Harrison Street Police Station was close to a vice district and “considered the worst of the police stations” (p. 53), and it was featured in W. T. Snead’s muckraking book, If Christ Came to Chicago.

Thomas also worked as a professional bailbondsman at the station.

He also mentions a source from 1885 called Colored Men’s Professional and Business Directory of Chicago.