by Kathy B. Lauder.
Sampson Wesley Keeble, Tennessee’s first African American legislator, was born May 18, 1833, in Rutherford County.1 His parents were Sampson and Nancy Keeble, slaves of Walter “Blackhead” Keeble, whose 1844 inventory listed 11-year-old Sampson.2 (Walter Keeble referred to his slaves as his servants and reportedly treated them respectfully. His 1816 will specified that his slaves were to be treated kindly, to be educated, and to be freed as soon as the law allowed . . . and that any of his descendants who refused were to inherit nothing at all.) The youngster was bequeathed to newsman Horace P. Keeble, who employed him as a pressman on the Rutherford Telegraph and the Murfreesboro News.3 After the Civil War, during which Sampson probably served as Private H. P. Keeble’s cook, the newly freed slave settled in Nashville and found work as a barber. Part-time employment in a law office helped him pass the Tennessee bar.4 He quickly became a leading citizen of the black community, working with James Napier, Peter and Samuel Lowery, Henry Harding, Nelson Merry, and others to educate black voters and to improve their civic status and security.5 Popular and successful as a barber, he also managed a well-known boarding house, and was believed to be quite wealthy.6 He was a director of the Tennessee Colored Agricultural and Mechanical Association7 and served on one of the few all-black Freedman’s Bank boards in the country.
In 1872 Davidson County Republicans appointed Keeble to run for the Tennessee House of Representatives. Swept into office by the landslide vote for President Grant, he became the first African American to serve in the state legislature. He introduced several bills aimed at improving the condition of black citizens, but none received sufficient votes to pass into law.8 He served only a single two-year term and lost a later bid for reelection (1878).
Sampson Keeble joined other prominent Nashvillians in protesting the upper-level mismanagement and fraud that threatened to topple the Freedman’s Bank,9 but Congressional response was inadequate. When the government failed to insure the existing deposits, the Freedman’s Bank collapsed in 1874, taking with it the life savings of thousands of African American depositors.
Keeble was elected to the Davidson County Court in 1877, serving as a magistrate until 1882.10 He was a delegate to the State Republican convention and served on a number of juries, including a federal grand jury (1881).11
After the death of his first wife,12 he married educator Rebecca Cantrell Gordon. Of the six children born to them, only a son and daughter survived to adulthood.13 At some point in the middle 1880s the family moved to Marshall, Texas, where Sampson Keeble died in June 1887.14 Rebecca brought the children back to Nashville, supporting them as a seamstress. She died in 1923 in a tragic accident at her daughter’s home in Charleston, South Carolina.15 Sampson Keeble is buried with his daughter and son-in-law in Nashville’s Greenwood Cemetery under a stone which reads, “Benjamin F. Cox (1874-1952) – His Wife, Jeannette Keeble Cox (1876-1956) – Her Father, Sampson W. Keeble (1833-1887), First Negro Representative of Tennessee Legislature.”
On March 29, 2010, a bust of Sampson W. Keeble, created by sculptor Roy W. Butler, was unveiled near the House chamber in the Tennessee Capitol. Its base lists all fourteen African Americans elected to the General Assembly during the 19th century. (2014)
1 McBride, Robert M., and Dan M. Robinson. Biographical Directory, Tennessee General Assembly, Volume II (1861-1901) Nashville: Tennessee State Library & Archives and Tennessee Historical Commission, 1979.
2 Rutherford County Will and Inventory Book 12, 1844, 432-434 and 558-562.
3 “Representative Keeble,” Nashville Union & American, December 6, 1872.
4 Helen Davis Mills, Keeble descendant, correspondence, 2008.
5 “In Chancery at Nashville,” Nashville Republican Banner, September 3, 1872.
6 “History of a Stolen Watch,” Nashville Republican Banner, October 18, 1871.
7 “The Colored Fair, A Satisfactory Indication of Material Progress,” Nashville Republican Banner, July 16, 1871.
8 Cartwright, Joseph H. The Triumph of Jim Crow: Tennessee Race Relations in the 1880s. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.9 “A Memorial to the Senate and House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States,” Congressional Record, January 15, 1875.
10 “Keeble Still Ahead,” Nashville Daily American, September 2, 1876.
11 “Federal Court Jurors,” Nashville Daily American, March 16, 1881.
12 “Died,” Nashville Republican Banner, June 17, 1870.
13 U. S. Census records.
14 “Death of Sampson W. Keeble,” Nashville Daily American, July 3, 1887.
15 Ancestry.com South Carolina, Death Records, 1821-1960 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry-com Operations Inc., 2008.
Cartwright, Joseph H. The Triumph of Jim Crow: Tennessee Race Relations in the 1880s. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.
Lovett, Bobby L. The African-American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930: Elites and Dilemmas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.
Rabinowitz, Howard N. Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890, 2nd ed. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
“This Honorable Body: African American Legislators in 19th Century Tennessee.” Exhibits, Tennessee State Library and Archives. https://sharetngov.tnsosfiles.com/tsla/exhibits/blackhistory/index.htm
NOTE: Internationally acclaimed sculptor Roy W. Butler, a native Tennessean, was selected by a committee of the Tennessee Arts Commission from a nationwide artist call to create the 1.5-times-life-size bronze sculpture of Representative Keeble. Mr. Butler is renowned for creating high-realism sculpture: Keeble has been represented with exceptional skin and hair detailing, as well as historically accurate (circa 1873) jacket lapels, vest texture, bowtie, and buttons.