by John W. Marshall and Kathy B. Lauder.
Introduction: Although John W. Boyd was not a Nashvillian, he was one of the fourteen African American men who served in the Tennessee General Assembly during the 19th century, so was certainly a significant figure in Nashville history. In time we hope to include biographies of all these men in the Nashville Historical Newsletter. For more information about these remarkable individuals and their complex historical era, visit the website of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
John W. Boyd was born about 1852 in Tipton County, Tennessee, to Philip and Sophia Fields Boyd*. On March 13, 1879, John married Martha C. “Mattie” Doggett in Trinity Episcopal Church, Mason, Tennessee. Mattie was a member of St. Paul Episcopal Church, the local black congregation, but the couple was somehow permitted to be married in the white church, with their wedding ceremony conducted by its priest, Rev. C. F. Collins. Anecdotal references suggest that Boyd freely attended services in both churches, black and white.
Mattie Doggett was the daughter of Andrew Doggett, a free man of color. Andrew actually owned property before the Civil War, acquiring some 200 acres more after the war ended. John Boyd’s older brother Armistead was married to Mattie’s twin sister, Nannie Doggett. Neither couple left any children. Their sister Judy married Henderson Stevens, a member of a well-respected, land-owning family in Mason. Judy and Henderson Stevens did leave a number of descendants, one of whom provided much of the information we know about the family.
While Nannie and Mattie Doggett were Episcopalian, the Boyd brothers were originally Methodists, members of what survives today as Alexander’s Chapel United Methodist Church. This church, too, was somewhat unusual in that it was not connected with either the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) or African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches, the historically black Methodist denominations.
John Boyd was too young to take part in the Civil War, but toward the end of the war his older brother Armistead left the Sanford place and went to Memphis to join the Federal army. His war record shows that he joined Company C of the 88th U.S. Colored Infantry on Jan. 21, 1865, at 19 years of age. He was mustered out a year later as a corporal. A story still extant in the community tells that, before his enlistment but after all the adult males had gone off to fight, Armistead, still a young teenager, armed himself with a shotgun to protect his master’s family.
Although no information has yet come to light concerning how or where John W. Boyd received his education or legal training, we do know that he was an attorney in the local courts and was highly respected among both the white and black communities. It is likely that the Boyd family had been allowed to obtain some rudimentary education even before emancipation – there is some evidence that for several generations this family of slaves had been high-achievers and had received special treatment from their masters. Perhaps this background gave them an advantage during Reconstruction and helped propel John Boyd into the profession of the law. Despite the Jim Crow laws that disfranchised African Americans during the last decade of the 19th century and removed them from positions of power, Boyd was still representing District 10 as a magistrate on the county court as late as 1900, although by that time he was the only black member remaining on the court.
John Boyd was elected to two terms in the Tennessee State Legislature. In the 42nd General Assembly (1881-1882) he served on the committees for Immigration, New Counties and County Lines, and Tippling Houses. In the 43rd General Assembly (1883-1884) he was named to the committee on Federal Regulations. During his period of service in Nashville, Boyd worked diligently with other African American legislators to overturn Chapter 130 of the Acts of 1875, the first of Tennessee’s Jim Crow laws, which permitted racial discrimination in public facilities. He also attempted unsuccessfully to repeal the restrictive contract labor law, which had the effect of keeping working blacks in bondage.
In the 1884 election, John Boyd ran for the Tennessee Senate seat representing Tipton and Fayette counties. When certified winner H. L. Blackwell, a Democrat, died three days before the 44th Session was due to convene, Governor William B. Bate called for a new Democratic election to choose Blackwell’s successor. Boyd challenged the governor’s ruling, saying he was the rightful winner of the original election and had been defrauded of his seat: during the November 4 election the District 4 ballot box had “mysteriously disappeared,” along with at least 400 Republican ballots, more than enough to elect Boyd Tennessee’s first black senator. However, despite compelling evidence – depositions from the sheriff and several election officials that two Democratic election judges had taken the box with them when they left for supper, later claiming that it had been “stolen and carried off” – the Senate chose to seat Democrat J. P. Edmondson. It would be 84 years (1969) before an African American would be seated in the Tennessee State Senate.
John and Mattie Boyd’s home was in the town of Mason, just south of the railroad tracks on the east side of Main Street. John, who outlived Mattie, died on March 11, 1932, at about 80 years of age, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Mason, Tennessee. The following is his obituary, found in the March 17, 1932, edition of the Covington (TN) Leader. It appeared on the newspaper’s first page:
“WELL-KNOWN NEGRO BURIED AT MASON–John W. BOYD, a well-known negro of District #10, died suddenly of heart failure Thursday, March 10th. He was buried the following Sunday. There were no immediate survivors. Well up in the eighties in age, Boyd was politically prominent in the three decades following the Civil War. A resident of a district composed largely of negroes, he was for a number of years a magistrate for the 10th District, and following a split in the Democratic ranks in the years following 1880 was elected to the Legislature from this county. He was also a member of the Covington Bar.”
* Philip and Sophia Fields Boyd were slaves to Henry Sanford and his wife Jean Murray Feild [sic] Sanford (1830-1893). Henry Sanford’s father was Col. Robert Walker Sanford (1802-1861), an early elected official of Tipton County, who had moved to Tennessee from Orange County, Virginia. Jean Feild Sanford’s father was Charles Grandison Feild (1805-1845), of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, and Haywood County, Tennessee. The death certificate of Armistead Boyd, another of Philip and Sophia’s children, indicated that both his parents were born in Virginia. Sophia Fields Boyd’s obituary lists her birthplace specifically as Mecklenburg County, Virginia, which had been home to many of Mason’s largest slaveholders – including the Feild family. [Note that the African American members of the family, after Emancipation, changed the spelling of their name from Feild to the more familiar Fields.] Another of the large slave-holding families in Mecklenburg County was the Boyd family, who were intimates and neighbors of the Feilds. It is likely that the Boyd name among the Feild slaves came from trading or intermarrying between the slaves of the two families.