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