First Black Statesmen: Tennessee’s Self-Made Men

“Self-made men come up in open defiance of all the efforts of society and circumstances to keep them down… There is genuine heroism in his struggle and glory in his triumph.” – Frederick Douglass

Sampson W. Keeble, bronze portrait bust by Roy W. Butler, 2010. Commissioned by the Tennessee General Assembly. Tennessee State Capitol/Tennessee State Museum (photo: Tennessee State Library & Archives).

Sampson W. Keeble, bronze portrait bust by Roy W. Butler, 2010. Commissioned by the Tennessee General Assembly. Tennessee State Capitol/Tennessee State Museum (photo: Tennessee State Library & Archives).

At the close of the Civil War, former slaves won freedom, but citizenship and the right to vote were still five years away. Tennessee granted freedmen the ballot box three years before federal ratification of the 15th Amendment, opening the way for black men to vote and represent their community for the first time. By the end of that year 40,000 Black men had registered to vote.

Sampson W. Keeble was one of the wealthiest black men in Tennessee, an attorney, a barber, and the proprietor of a prosperous boarding house in Nashville, on the board of the Freedman’s Bank, an insurance company, and others. He lost his first nomination to the General Assembly in 1870, but emerged victorious two years later to take his seat as the first African American Tennessean in the state legislature.

During the 1880s, twelve African American’s served in the Tennessee General Assembly: nine from Southwest Tennessee; two from Chattanooga, and another from Nashville. They were lawyers and laborers, soldiers and schoolteachers, ministers and magistrates; but for 400,000 black Tennesseans, they were much more.

Historian Dr. Bobby Lovett says: “For African Americans in Tennessee, socially, politically, economically, it’s a pretty bad time, and it’s a miracle in a way that you have that many black legislators elected to the General Assembly during the 1880s… They were the black elite class and they more than anybody resented how blacks were treated because they had a little wealth, they had businesses, they had jobs, they could read and write and so on and they were being treated badly, pushed aside and so on, under the threat of lynching at night. They didn’t know if nightriders were going to invade their homes. Their women could be mistreated and raped at anytime, as they had done in slavery.”

Keeble was Tennessee’s first black legislator, but Fisk University alumnus Samuel McElwee may well have been the most revered. Fellow statesmen, black and white, held the former Haywood County slave in such high regard that during his second term, he was nominated for Speaker of the House. He got all the Republican votes, but lost because there were twice as many Democrats. McElwee’s nomination was one of the few high points for the black statesmen during the 44th general assembly.

During the 1880s, Tennessee’s black statesmen authored 68 pieces of legislation, only a handful of which became law. With the deck stacked solidly against them, repeated attempts to repeal discriminatory “black codes” proved futile. By 1886, lynchings had become commonplace. White separatists in Haywood County targeted the statesman in November 1888; facing an armed mob, he and his family fled, barely escaping to Nashville with their lives. Like several former legislators and thousands of freedmen, McElwee eventually left Tennessee.

At the end of the 1889 session, there were no Blacks left in the legislature. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and threats of violence kept many black voters away from the polls for decades. From the time Samuel McElwee was driven from Haywood County in 1888, more than 75 years would pass before another African American would serve in Tennessee’s General Assembly. No African American was elected to the Tennessee legislature from 1888 through 1962. Archie Walter Willis Jr. became the first Black legislator in Tennessee in over seven decades in 1964. Currently, African Americans make up 13% of the legislature; all Black legislators are Democrats. No African American has ever been elected governor or lieutenant governor of Tennessee.

First Black Statesmen: Tennessee’s Self-Made Men is a locally produced documentary by WNPT’s Ed Jones. It premieres Monday, February 15, at 9:00 pm on NPT-HD; successive airings are: 02/17/16, 9:00 am NPT2; 02/18/16, 2:00 pm NPT2; 02/18/16, 11:00 pm NPT-HD; 03/05/16, 9:00 pm NPT2; 03/06/16, 5:00 pm NPT2; and 03/31/16, 8:00 pm NPT-HD. See our website for a complete list of all African Americans who have been elected to the Tennessee legislature at pridepublishinggroup.com