George Francis Porter, Dallas African-American civil rights activist and college president, was born in Georgia, on December 17, 1876. George Porter was raised, at least for a time, by his great-grandparents Robert and Ruth Hunter, in Watts, Newton County, Georgia.
Porter attended Georgia’s Atlanta University and earned a degree (probably an advanced one) in 1899. He initially taught at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida; in 1901, he was hired to teach mathematics at Paul Quinn College in Waco. Later Porter taught at Dallas’s Colored High School, which was located at the corner of Hall and Cochran streets. Eventually he became president of the Dallas branch of Wiley College, a very prestigious Black college with its home campus in Marshall, Texas. Wiley College was the oldest U. S. college for Blacks west of the Mississippi River, and it also contained the first Carnegie College Library west of the Mississippi.
At one point, George Porter was married to Mae Belser. In the fall of 1918 the couple lived at 1717 Hall Street. By mid-1920 Porter was living separately from his wife, as a boarder. They had no children.
In the 1930s the Dallas County poll tax list contained no indication of a registered voter’s race. Potential jurors were selected from the poll tax list. If a jury summons happened to be mailed to a Black person, when that person arrived at the courthouse, he was paid $3 (the per diem amount paid to jurors) and promptly dismissed. In 1938 the president of the Dallas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Dr. B. E. Howell, developed a procedure that Blacks could follow when they received a jury summons, if they wanted to avoid being dismissed. In September 1938 Porter was summoned to the Dallas County courthouse. He refused to be dismissed and continued to report daily to the central jury room. On the third day Porter was physically forced out of the central jury room by two White men. Then they threw him headfirst from the Main Street porch down the steps to the sidewalk. Deputy sheriffs led Porter back upstairs to the courtroom, where he was formally dismissed from duty (along with a number of White talesmen). Porter was then escorted out of the courthouse. No arrests were made regarding his physical assault, and he soon developed permanent blindness as a result of the fall. The Dallas Morning News reported that Porter had also challenged jury selection on two previous occasions—in 1921 and 1936.
The story of Porter’s violent removal from the central jury room and from the Dallas County courthouse came to the attention of future U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, who in 1938 was employed in the national headquarters of the NAACP in New York. Marshall was appalled and decided to visit Dallas to discuss the matter with the judge in the case that had violently excluded Porter as a petit juror. After the meeting, as Marshall walked toward his car, the Dallas police chief followed him and, gun in hand, reportedly yelled: “Hi, you Black son-of-a-bitch. I’ve got you now!” Marshall ran toward his car. Sitting on the hood of his car was a Texas Ranger, who drew his own pistol, pointed it at the police chief, and said, “Fella, just stay right where you are.” As Thurgood Marshall climbed into the car, profoundly relieved, he recalled that he had assured Texas Governor James Allred that he would need no Ranger bodyguard. And he was thankful that the governor had insisted.
In 1938 Texas state law prohibited White and Black citizens from sitting together in public places. Also, the idea of a Black person sitting in judgment (as a juror) over a White defendant was decidedly repugnant to many White people in that era. However, the fact that Blacks were effectively prohibited from serving on Dallas juries (both grand juries and petit juries) gave some convicted felons possible grounds for having their sentences overturned. Those felons had not been indicted or convicted by a jury of their peers.
When Thurgood Marshall had unexpectedly visited Governor Allred in October 1938, the governor was perplexed by the situation, and he pledged to have Texas Rangers protect potential Black jurors. Before year’s end, on order of the governor, five Texas Rangers were on duty in Dallas County’s central jury room to protect potential Black jurors. Thus, the violent treatment that George Porter suffered soon led to a change: before the beginning of 1939, Dallas Blacks were able to serve as jurors.
Porter later worked for several years as the executive secretary of the NAACP’s Dallas branch. He was a member of the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dallas. He was also a member of the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce. George Porter died on August 11, 1951, at the age of seventy-four, in a Dallas hospital. He was buried in Dallas’s Lincoln Cemetery.