Born in Issaquena County in 1859, Willis Elbert Mollison became a teacher, newspaperman, county official, banker, lawyer, and leading African American Republican in post-Reconstruction Mississippi. During the Civil War he learned to read from a white teacher from the North, and after the war he worked on a farm with his parents. By 1880 he had attended Fisk University in Tennessee and Oberlin College in Ohio, married his wife, Martha, in Ohio, and returned to Mississippi to teach.
Soon after his return, Mollison was appointed school superintendent and then elected clerk of the circuit and chancery courts of Issaquena County, serving from 1883 to 1891. Before becoming clerk of court, he studied law with Congressman Elza Jeffords, a native of Ohio who had been a member of the Mississippi High Court of Errors and Appeals. After examination in open court by three lawyers, Mollison was admitted to the bar in 1881 by Judge B. F. Trimble. Mollison practiced law in Issaquena County and sought statewide office. After he failed to secure the Republican nomination for secretary of state, Mollison was recruited to run on John Roy Lynch’s reform ticket. Although not elected to the statewide office, Mollison moved to Vicksburg, where he served for a time as acting district attorney. This appointment by a white Democratic judge created a stir in the community but likely resulted simply from the recognition of Mollison’s skill in the courtroom. One biographical sketch claimed that Mollison “had the largest criminal practice in the state.” While that statement is probably an exaggeration, Mollison represented both black and white clients. He served as co-counsel with some prominent white lawyers and won nine appeals in the Mississippi Supreme Court. His most celebrated victory was overturning a murder conviction because of racist language used by the white prosecutor. Although Mississippi had adopted a Jim Crow Constitution in 1890, Mollison continued to have success in the Mississippi courts, winning three appeals as late as 1916.
Mollison, who was closely associated with Booker T. Washington, became a successful entrepreneur. He was president of Lincoln Park Land Company, a major stockholder in the Lincoln Savings Bank of Vicksburg, a director of the Mound Bayou Oil Mill and Manufacturing Company, and owner of the National Star newspaper. In addition, he had an active civil law practice representing fraternal benefit organizations and the Union Guaranty Insurance Company. He was a successful trial lawyer in suits against the Illinois Central and other railroads. Mollison remained active in Republican Party politics and was a strong supporter of Theodore Roosevelt.
As his son Irvin C. Mollison wrote in the Journal of Negro History in 1930, the life of the black lawyer in Mississippi after 1900 grew increasingly tenuous. W. E. Mollison told his son that after one trial, the judge informed Mollison that he had almost been killed during the trial. In another case, Mollison’s objections to some questions asked by a white lawyer nearly caused him to assault Mollison. In yet another case, Mollison’s white cocounsel went through the transcript and struck out the word Mister every time it appeared before Mollison’s name.
The combination of the ascendancy of Jim Crow politicians, the faltering economy, and the start of World War I led to the loss of both power and business for Mollison, and like many other black Mississippians, he moved to Chicago around 1917. He practiced law in Chicago with his son, Irvin, served as president of the Cook County Bar Association, and remained active in Republican politics and the National Businessmen’s Association. Mollison died on 11 May 1924.
- Green Polnius Hamilton, Beacon Lights of the Race (1911)
- Irvin C. Mollison, Journal of Negro History 15, no. 1 (1930)
- J. Clay Smith Jr., Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844–1944 (1993)