David Solomon (1916–2017)

David Solomon practiced law for seventy-five years in the riverside city of Helena-West Helena (Phillips County), where for more than a century after the Civil War he and other Solomons were patriarchs of a large Jewish community that played a major role in the city’s and county’s rise as a cultural and economic center of the Mid-South. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Solomon practiced alone until shortly before his hundredth birthday, representing, among others, poor African Americans and whites, often free of charge. He held every position in the Arkansas Bar Association except president, which he declined. In 1975, Governor David H. Pryor appointed Solomon to the Arkansas Highway Commission.

David Solomon was born on July 19, 1916, in Helena to David Solomon and Pauline Elkas Solomon. His father and uncles farmed cotton and vegetables and were merchants and community leaders. The elder Solomon, like his son forty years later, was elected to the Helena School Board. He was opposed by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a dominant political force in Helena and much of Arkansas in the 1920s, but won handily.

For a Southern town, Helena had an unusually large Jewish community, about 400 in a population of approximately 10,000 in 1927. The Solomons were leaders of the Congregation Beth El, formed in 1867. As the population of the community, including Jews, dwindled, Solomon continued to lead the congregation until 2006, when the remaining members closed the glass-domed temple and turned it over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage. Worshipers then gathered each week in the Solomon home.

When David Solomon was five, his parents enrolled him in the first grade at Sacred Heart School, which was operated by the Sisters of Nazareth. The nuns advanced him to the fourth grade. Solomon would later joke that his mother finally transferred him from the Catholic school to the public schools when he kept coming home with crucifixes and vials of holy water. He received a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and a law degree from Harvard and was admitted to practice law in 1939 in Arkansas and Tennessee. He applied to be a tax lawyer for a large firm in Memphis but, when he was not chosen, Solomon returned to Helena and started a solo practice.

After the United States entered World War II, Solomon enlisted in the U.S. Army, and in September 1942, on furlough, he married Miriam Rayman, an occupational therapist in Chicago who had grown up down the street from him and had attended Washington University with him. They would have three sons.

After the war, Solomon resumed his solo practice in Helena. He was elected city attorney of Helena in late 1940s and continued for ten years. His idol in the legal profession was Jacob Trieber, the great Jewish lawyer at Helena, friend of the Solomon family, and the first Jew ever appointed to a federal judgeship (he was appointed in 1900 by President William McKinley). Trieber delivered some of the earliest civil rights decisions.

For much of the century and beyond, Solomon’s office on Helena’s Cherry Street was sort of a public defender’s office before there were public defenders, although he represented banks, merchants, and farmers as well. He was invited to join the American College of Trial Lawyers, an invitation-only professional association.

Solomon was known for one sartorial oddity: he wore only bowties. He never wore a long tie, which he attributed to having to wear a long tie as a soldier on full-dress occasions.

He was elected as Phillips County’s delegate to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention in 1969–1970. His most memorable speech at the convention was to argue that the state constitution should scrap the election of judges, which he said was counter to the whole idea of an independent judiciary, where judges were to uphold the rights of individuals and, unlike the two elected branches of government, not be subject to the whims, prejudices, and vagaries of a popular majority. As an example of the failures of the electoral system for judges, Solomon cited the defeat of a brilliant and fair jurist, Supreme Court Justice Minor W. Millwee, in 1958 by the legendary politician James D. “Justice Jim” Johnson, whom he described as a demagogue. In his only venture at politicking outside of Phillips County, Solomon had campaigned for Justice Millwee. Johnson was a diehard segregationist who was the author of the state’s interposition amendment, ratified in 1956, which required the state to defy federal court orders to integrate all its educational institutions. Solomon’s speech caused a stir at the convention.

In 1975, the newly elected governor, David Pryor, asked Solomon to join the five-member state Highway Commission, one of the most sought-after appointments in state government. Solomon first refused and then agreed. He served ten years but asked Governor Bill Clinton in 1984 not to reappoint him. In 2014, the Arkansas Bar Association honored him for seventy-five years of service to the bar.

Solomon died on March 23, 2017. He is buried in Temple Beth El Cemetery in Helena-West Helena.

For additional information:
“David Solomon at 100.” Rex Nelson. Rex Nelson’s Southern Fried, http://www.rexnelsonsouthernfried.com/?p=8035 (accessed July 29, 2022).

“Helena, Arkansas.” Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, https://www.isjl.org/arkansas-helena-encyclopedia.html (accessed July 29, 2022).

Obituary of David Solomon. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 26, 2017, p. 5B.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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