African American History Month: Learn about Nathaniel Colley

e-Connections Post

Nathaniel Sextus Colley Sr. was the first African American attorney in Sacramento and the first African American to be appointed to the California State Board of Education. Active in the NAACP, he was instrumental in eliminating bias in federal housing regulations.

“I felt I had a mission to try to make the world a better place through law,” Colley once said. “Those who believe in the system are going to try to make it work. And if it won’t work, no one can say we didn’t try.”

Born in 1918, Colley grew up in Snow Hill, Alabama, and in 1941 graduated from the Tuskegee Institute, where he was mentored by George Washington Carver. In World War II, he served as a captain in an Army unit that developed defenses against chemical weapons.

After the war, he was rejected by the University of Alabama Law School because he was black. He earned his degree at Yale University instead, where he graduated with honors in 1948. 

Colley was active in the NAACP for four decades, serving as its western regional counsel, a member of its national board, chairman of its legal committee and presiding officer at a national convention.

In 1952, Colley secured a ruling from the Sacramento County Superior Court that forbade segregation by the Sacramento Housing Authority. Five years later, Colley persuaded the Superior Court in Ming v. Horgan to declare that developers receiving federal housing funds could not engage in discrimination.

When California voters in 1964 approved Proposition 14 — which gave property owners the right to refuse to sell property to anyone — Colley and other lawyers argued before the California Supreme Court that the initiative violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

The court agreed and voided Prop. 14 in 1966. A year later, the US Supreme Court upheld the decision.

In 1962, Colley was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to a committee to recommend steps to end discrimination against military employees and their families.

He practiced law in Sacramento for more than 40 years and taught classes at McGeorge School of Law in Oak Park for 17 years. He died in 1992.

The Center for Sacramento History and TV station KVIE produced a documentary about Colley in 2013. Watch a segment of the video here.