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                                        EARLY TENNESSEE LAW MAKERS

                                                       By William Larsha, Sr.

Between 1872 and 1888, African Americans were elected on thirteen occasions to serve in the Tennessee House of Representatives. In the wake of what was happening in the post civil war southern years, these Black legislators serve their positions courageously.

Alliances of north and south capitalists had become interested in the industrial growth of the south. Once aided by federal troops, reconstruction governments which were meant to protect and help Blacks adjust to freedom from slavery, had become primary concerns.

Withdrawal of federal troops in 1877 left southern Blacks without any effective defense for their newly acquired citizenship rights. By the end of the century, there was not a single Black in state legislature or a single Black in the National Congress. Southern state governments as well as White southern citizens adopted numerous devices to prevent Blacks from voting: intimidation, written and un-written laws, even murder, all became part of the post war culture of the American south.

Troop withdrawal led White politicians to execute every factor of discrimination against African Americans that one could imagine. Hatred of Blacks as economic rivals become belief, and claims of Black inferiority was openly used as the scapegoat for the difficulties facing the White working and small farming classes.

“If it wasn’t for them Negroes, we White folks wouldn’t be havin’ all these survival problems.”

Nevertheless, history tells us that Tennessee Black legislators were very-much-so men of ability and experience; and with genuine influence in the communities in which they lived.

This was especially true during the 1880’s. At least half of these new legislators had university educations. They were lawyers, school teachers, businessmen - one a minister. Seven of the thirteen Black legislators had had previous experience in public service on the federal, state, or local level.

The first Black elected was Sampson W. Keeble of Nashville, a barber and businessman. Also from Davidson County was Thomas A. Sykes, a federal tax collector who had served in the North Carolina State Legislature before coming to Tennessee.

David F. Rivers and N.W. Gooden, both landowners, were elected from Fayette County. John W. Boyd, businessman was elected from Tipton County. Thomas F. Cassells, a lawyer who had attended Oberlin College; and Greene E. Evans, a graduate of Fisk University, a businessman and a school teacher were two of five elected from Shelby County.

The others elected from Shelby County were businessman Leon Howard, landowner Isaac F. Norris and school teacher William A. Fields.

William C. Hodge had served on the Chattanooga City Council prior to his election to the legislature, and Styles L. Hutchings, also from Hamilton county was a lawyer and an editor of a Chattanooga newspaper.

It should be pointed out that during this period no Black Tennessean was elected to the United States Congress. This did not occur until 100 years later.

Perhaps the most famous of the Black legislators in Tennessee, Samuel A. McElwee of Haywood County, served in the Tennessee House of Representative from 1883 through 89. During his three terms as law maker, he emerged as one of the most active member of the legislature - nominated Speaker of the House in 1885.

McElwee was born in Madison County. At age sixteen he was teaching in Haywood county. A year later, he entered Oberlin College, paying his expenses by working menial jobs. In 1878, McElwee enrolled at Fisk University. He also worked on a law degree at Central Tennessee College in Nashville.

He was the last rural west Tennessee African American outside of Shelby County to hold a State House seat in 112 years; that is, not until the election of J. W. Shaw of Hardeman County, (Dist. 80, on November 7, 2000.

Although the influence of Black legislators in the Tennessee General Assembly was not strong, the legislation they did sponsored; the arguments they did present; and the votes they did cast; all highlighted distinct issues.





 

 

 

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