James Napier was born in Nashville in 1845. Most African Americans in the South were slaves back then, but Napier’s parents were free.
After the Civil War, Napier became a leader in the black community. In the late 19th century he was at the heart of every political struggle fought by black residents in Nashville. Councilman Napier led the battle to get Nashville’s government to hire black teachers for black public schools, and Citizen Napier helped organize Nashville’s fire engine company.
In 1911 Napier was chosen by President William Taft to be Registry of the Treasury. Napier stayed with the treasury until March 1913, and during that time his signature appeared on all paper money printed by the federal government.
According to this letter from New York Age editor Lester Walton, published in the August 14, 1913 New York Times, James Napier resigned his position because of a federal government order that the white and black clerks in his office be segregated.
As a result of this stance by Napier, the American government apparently stopped its practice of appointing black men to be Register of the Treasury.
Today a public housing project in Nashville is named for James Napier.