Monroe W. Gooden: Ahead of His Time

by John W. Marshall and Kathy B. Lauder. 

Introduction: Although Monroe W. Gooden was not a Nashvillian, he was one of the 14 African American men elected to the Tennessee General Assembly during the 19th century. In time we hope to include all their biographies in the Nashville Historical Newsletter. For more information about these remarkable individuals and their complex historical era, see the Tennessee State Library and Archives exhibit:

Monroe Gooden’s death certificate records his birthdate as October 26, 1852, and his death as January 19, 1915. The Biographical Directory of the Tennessee General Assembly includes the same date of death but lists Gooden’s birth date as May 10, 1848, which, since it corresponds with the age Gooden gave in census records, is probably more likely to be correct.

Monroe W. Gooden (from a composite photo of the 45th Tennessee General Assembly, 1887)

The death certificate also states that the future legislator was born in Fayette County, Tennessee, to Monroe Gooden Sr. and an unknown mother. The omission of the mother’s name is regrettable since it might have provided a valuable clue to the family’s history – slaves usually had the same masters (and surnames) as their mothers, at least during their youth. We do know that the neighborhood the Goodens lived in was in the north-central part of Fayette County, along the line between Districts 4 and 5, and only two or three miles from the Haywood County line. In fact, Charles G. Feild’s plantation (Feild was the slave owner of Representative John W. Boyd’s mother) was just over the county line in Haywood County, only a few miles away. Although we still do not know exactly which plantation was Monroe Gooden’s birthplace, we can identify three possible choices bordering each other in that neighborhood: the Baskerville and Tucker plantations in District 4 and the Harwell plantation in District 5. Since slaves generally took spouses from their own and adjoining plantations, a trend that continued throughout Reconstruction, it is likely that Gooden was born on one of these three plantations.

The question of where Gooden and his sister Lucinda lived during the period of slavery has not been completely answered. We are quite certain that they were Monroe Senior’s only children, and it is apparent that their mother died when they were very young. Slave schedule/census records rule out either the Tucker or Baskerville plantations. However, one clue to their childhood home may be found in Civil War enrollment records: Monroe W. evidently enrolled in the Federal army as “Monroe Harvey.” Matching this name to a late 1860s Fayette County record of a “Monroe Harwell” (who does not appear in the census), one wonders whether the young soldier’s name should have been written as “Harwell” also, and whether the children did, in fact, grow up on the Harwell plantation in District 5. Slave genealogy is a puzzle with many pieces (and documents) missing.

The Harwell plantation was owned by Dr. Frederick Harwell, a native of Brunswick County, Virginia. Several members of his family had moved to Giles County in Middle Tennessee about 1810. Twenty years later Dr. Harwell and his wife moved west to District 5 in Fayette County, where they established a sizable plantation, with more than 1,000 acres and close to 80 slaves. Several intriguing anecdotes about the family still survive. According to one story, late in the Civil War Dr. Harwell, who was quite elderly by then, took a little slave girl along to help him bury his money in order to protect it from oncoming Yankee soldiers. Several descendants of that little girl tell how, later in life, she wracked her brain trying to remember where the money was buried. Over the years many people tried to find the hidden treasure, but with no success. It was not until the 1940s that Jacob Harwell Jr., whose father was raised by a slave from the plantation, was plowing in one of the fields and dug up part of the money. Descendants of John Yarbrough, the mulatto driver [a high-ranking slave used as an overseer] on the plantation, tell of the Union soldiers who hung Yarbrough upside down from a tree to force him to reveal where the Harwells’ valuables were hidden. 

Because the Harwells had no children, when both of them died during the final year of the Civil War, they willed their property to two Giles County nephews, who continued to operate the Harwell plantation as absentee owners for another 40 years. During that period several mortgages were filed by Monroe W. Gooden for crops “grown on the Harwell place,” which was on the Somerville-to-Covington road, where the Bernard School was later located. Combining that information with the available census records, one can draw the conclusion that Monroe was renting and living in the old Harwell manor house during much of the late 1800s. Oral history suggests that Monroe was a “big operator” with many sharecroppers working under him. Whether or not he was originally a Harwell slave, it is evident that he was in time the de facto “master” of the Harwell plantation.

Photo courtesy of Fayette County Historical Society

We do know that Monroe W. Gooden’s wife Ann came from the Baskerville plantation owned by the Reverend John Tabb Baskerville, a well-known Methodist minister of the area, and a native of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, which had been home to a number of the large land-owners of southwest Tennessee. A family story relates that the white Baskervilles taught at least one of their young slaves to read, and later gave her enough money to purchase 100 acres of property.                                                                  

Monroe W. Gooden and Ann Baskerville were married in Somerville on December 29, 1866, not long after Monroe Sr. married Hannah Hare, another former slave from the Baskerville plantation. It is interesting to note that Monroe Sr.’s marriage record lists his surname as “Tucker,” suggesting (since freed slaves often chose the surname of their original owner, rather than the most recent one) that he had at some point been a slave of Joseph C. C. Tucker on a plantation adjoining that of the Baskervilles.

In the 1870 census, both Monroe W. and Monroe Sr. were living in District 4. The elder Gooden was at that time 48 years old, so he would have been born about 1822, during the presidency of James Monroe. Their surname in this particular census is spelled “Goodwin,” which may provide an additional clue to their history – in the 1820s the Goodwyn family were among the largest slave-holders in Dinwiddie County, Virginia . . . which was also the original home of Joseph C. C. Tucker!  It is quite possible that Monroe Sr. was born in Virginia as a Goodwyn slave, but was later brought to Fayette County by the Tuckers.

On March 2, 1872, Monroe Gooden Sr. became one of the first African Americans in Fayette County to own land, when he purchased two tracts amounting to about 250 acres from A. D. Stainback (Fayette Deed Book 2, page 57) in a transaction known as a title bond. This was an instrument of sale whereby the title passed to the new owner, but a deed was not given until payment was made in full. Six years later, after the death of Monroe Sr., the administrator of A. D. Stainback’s estate gave a deed for the property to “the heirs of Monroe Gooden,” listed as his widow Hannah Gooden and his two children, Monroe Gooden Jr. and Lucinda Gooden McNeal (Fayette Deed Book 7, page 345, 25 February 1878). Lucinda McNeal, who married Austin McNeal, owned a house and lot in the town of Mason during the early 1900s. She was known around town as “Aunt Cindy McNeal” and lived to be an old woman. Unfortunately, her death certificate provides no information as to her parentage.

Tennessee Capitol (photo courtesy of the Tennessee House of Representatives)

A deed from January 25, 1881 (Fayette Deed Book 9, page 618), provides for one-half acre to be used as the site for a school for colored children. The school directors for Civil District 5 during that period were identified as W. A. Rives, M. W. Goodwin, and James H. Cocke. Rives and Cocke were both white men. There is little doubt that by this time Monroe W. Gooden had risen to a very prominent position in the community. The only African American Democrat in the Tennessee legislature in the 19th century, he was elected to represent Fayette County in the 45th Tennessee General Assembly, 1887-1888. A legislative biography identifies him as a “farmer and ginner near Somerville, Fayette County,” and lists him as a member of the Masonic order. [African-American Freemasons groups have existed in the United States since 1775, and the number of black lodges increased significantly after the Civil War.]  Gooden was also a trustee of the Williamson Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.  

About the time he was elected to the legislature, Monroe W. Gooden began to acquire large tracts of land. One such purchase, recorded on November 22, 1887, was for 372 acres. He bought more land in 1890, and in 1897 he purchased still another large tract totaling over 500 acres. By the end of his life, he owned about a thousand acres, including the former Patterson plantation in the Brewer community. This property had been owned before the Civil War by General Bernard Markham Patterson (originally Patteson), another native Virginian and large-scale planter, who had also spent time in Giles County before coming to West Tennessee. At some point between 1890 and 1900 Gooden moved his large family into the old Patterson plantation house, a comfortable two-story, white frame building.

The Goodens had a large number of children: Mary, Monroe J., John, James/Jim, Lillie Bell, and Willa Ola Gooden. Ann already had one son, Dempsey (Demp) Shivers, when she married Monroe Gooden, and he is listed with the family in the 1880 census. Monroe W. had at least one other child as well, a son named Frank Gooden, whose mother was Mollie Coe.

Monroe Gooden and his wife Ann are buried in the Patterson Cemetery in Fayette County, northwest of Somerville. This section was originally a slave burial ground: most of the people buried there are descendants of slaves from the Patterson plantation. (Photo by John Marshall)

After his death, Monroe Gooden was buried in the family section he had created in the Patterson cemetery, which had originally been the slave burial ground on the Patterson plantation. Most members of his family are buried there with him. Nearly all the people buried on that site can trace their roots to the Patterson slaves. Several such cemeteries survive in District 5, all bearing the names of the original plantation owners. Although some are abandoned, several others, including the Patterson cemetery, are still in use today.

A brief obituary of Monroe Gooden appeared in the January 22, 1915, edition of the Fayette Falcon, Somerville, Tennessee:

“Fayette county lost one of her best colored citizens on last Tuesday when Monroe J. Gooden of the fifth district, died at a ripe old age. Monroe was one of the most thrifty men of his race in the county and owned several hundred acres of good land. He lived on this land and can be counted as a good citizen. He was quiet, unpretentious, and lived in peace and harmony with his white neighbors, holding their friendship and respect. He represented Fayette county in the state legislature in 1887 and was the last negro to sit in a legislature in any of the southern states during the reconstruction times. In recent years he has taken no part in politics, never even voting for years*. Many negroes could help to improve the condition and standing of their race by emulating the example of honesty and right living set by Monroe Gooden.”

* Note: There were very few African American Democrats during Reconstruction, so Gooden’s politics were quite unusual. It is likely (particularly since he seemed to withdraw completely from political attachment in his later years) that he became a Democrat during the years in which he was politically active in order to avoid friction with his white neighbors.

Slave to Statesman: The Story of John W. Boyd

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.

John Boyd, from a composite photo of the 42nd Tennessee General Assembly, 1881

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 a member of what is now Alexander’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Mason, Tennessee. Boyd is the bald gentleman standing in the back row on the left; his wife Mattie, wearing a dark hat, stands beside him. John’s brother Armistead Boyd, seated in front of Mattie, has a light-colored hat and a large white mustache. (Photo used by permission, Tipton County Historical Society)

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 served as a Tipton County Magistrate well into the Jim Crow era. (Photo used by permission, Tipton County Historical Society)

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.

Republican ballot from 1884 election, when Boyd ran for the Tennessee Senate. 19th century ballots listed all candidates from a single political party. If a voter wanted to vote for everyone on the ticket, he merely dropped it into the ballot box with no alterations (i.e., he voted the straight ticket). However, he could mark through (scratch) any names he did not want to vote for. Black candidates often received many fewer votes than others on the same ticket.

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.

Thomas A. Sykes, 1838-ca. 1905

by Kathy B. Lauder.

The story of Thomas A. Sykes is a microcosm of African American life in the 19th century: he rose from slavery to political power in a few short years, only to disappear from view as Southern legislatures once again stripped black citizens of their freedoms.

Thomas A. Sykes represented Nashville in the 42nd Tennessee General Assembly (1881-1882)

Former North Carolina legislator, U. S. revenue official, businessman, and school superintendent Thomas Sykes represented Davidson County in the Forty-Second Tennessee General Assembly, 1881-1882.1 A former slave, Sykes had paid a white child six cents to teach him to read. After emancipation he was elected to represent Pasquotank County in the state legislature (1868-1871) and served on the state Republican executive committee.2 He came to Nashville in 1872 as a gauger, a customs official who inspects, weighs, and taxes shipping containers. The following year Sykes became assistant assessor for the Internal Revenue Service,3 and by 1878 he was a county magistrate.4          

Thomas Sykes’s skills as a public speaker, which had brought him national recognition,5 quickly led him to prominence in Nashville politics. Sykes and James Carroll Napier, “Nashville’s two most important black politicians,”6 worked with others to bring down Mayor Thomas A. Kercheval’s political machine (1883). Their efforts opened up many city jobs to black workers7 and facilitated the appointment of black teachers.8

Sykes was a Republican candidate for state representative in 1880.9 One of four African Americans elected to the General Assembly that term, he introduced five important bills. His attempt to repeal Chapter 130 of the Acts of 1875 was the earliest attempt to overturn this early Jim Crow law permitting discrimination in public facilities.10 The bill failed, even after all four black legislators protested Chapter 130 as “a palpable violation of the spirit, genius and letter of our system of free government.”11 Sykes’s bill recommending a penitentiary in West Tennessee was made unrecognizable by amendments. When the bill passed 41-20, Sykes, who had actually voted against it himself, pleaded unsuccessfully for its reconsideration.12 His bill to admit black students to Nashville’s School for the Blind and Knoxville’s School for the Deaf and Dumb, and to house them in separate facilities, passed 59-1, although the Civil Rights Act of 1875, still in force,13 made such segregation illegal. Two other bills, banning discrimination in jury selection and opening the University of Tennessee to black students, were tabled in committee.14

Sykes served on the State Temperance Executive Committee and made many speeches on their behalf. An 1885 newspaper article described him as “one of the most highly educated and refined colored men we know.”15 In 1887 he became Assistant Superintendent, Colored Department, of Nashville’s new Tennessee Industrial School.  The school, conceived by Judge John C. Ferris after an 1873 cholera epidemic that orphaned many children, was financed by railroad tycoon Edmund W. “King” Cole.16 

Thomas Sykes was placed in charge of the Colored Department of the Tennessee Industrial School in Nashville when it opened in 1887. (Sketch from Ferris, John C., and Edmund W. Cole. Homes for the Homeless, or, Fourteen Years among the Orphans. Nashville: Methodist Episcopal Church South, 1890.)

Sykes’s career after 1890 clearly illustrates the effects of Jim Crow on Southern blacks. After the Forty-Sixth General Assembly passed four disfranchising laws that effectively silenced black political voices in Tennessee, a political pundit snickered in the Nashville Daily American that former Representative Thomas A. Sykes had been demoted to elevator operator in the very Customs House where he had once held a privileged federal position.17  Sykes apparently left Nashville after a highly-publicized divorce from his schoolteacher wife, Viola Hoyt.18  His name does not appear in Nashville city directories after 1893. (2014)


1 McBride, Robert M., and Dan M. Robinson. Biographical Directory, Tennessee General Assembly, Volume II (1861-1901). Nashville: Tennessee State Library and Archives, and Tennessee Historical Commission, 1979.

2 “Sykes, of Nashville: Relating His North Carolina Experience to a Washington Stalwart.” Nashville Daily American, January 25, 1882. (Reprinted from the Washington Republican, date unknown.)

3 Nashville, Tennessee, City Directory, 1873. U.S.City Directories, 1821-1989 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc. 2011.

4 Nashville, Tennessee, City Directory, 1878. U.S.City Directories, 1821-1989 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc. 2011.

5 “Sykes, of Nashville.” Nashville Daily American, January 25, 1882.

6 Rabinowitz, Howard N. Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890, 2nd ed. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

7 Cartwright, Joseph H. The Triumph of Jim Crow: Tennessee Race Relations in the 1880s. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976, 132-133.

8 Rabinowitz, note 37, p. 401.

9 Cartwright, 72.

10 “Jim Crow and Disfranchisement of Southern Blacks,” This Honorable Body: African American Legislators in 19th Century Tennessee. Exhibits, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

11 Tennessee General Assembly. Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Tennessee. Nashville: Tavel & Howe, 1881.

12 House Journal, 1881.

13 Lovett, Bobby L. The African-American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930: Elites and Dilemmas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999. 221.

14 House Journal, 1881.

15 “Sykes, of Nashville. A Fellow Legislator’s Handsome Compliment.” Nashville Daily American, July 17, 1885. (Reprinted from Franklin Review and Journal, date unknown)

16 Tyree, Forrest H. A Centennial History of the Tennessee Preparatory School. Nashville, 1985.

17 Nashville American, June 8 and 13, 1890.

18 Sykes v. Sykes, Davidson County Circuit Court, Minute Book 24, 1881, page 180.


 “This Honorable Body: African American Legislators in 19th Century Tennessee.” Exhibits, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Samuel A. McElwee, 1859-1914

by Kathy B. Lauder.

Samuel Allen McElwee was born a slave in Haywood County, Tennessee, on June 26, 1859.  After emancipation he attended Freedmen’s Bureau schools1 and by 16 was teaching in a local school himself.2

Rep. Samuel A. McElwee, Esq.

In 1875 he entered Oberlin College for a year, taking odd jobs to pay his tuition.3 Returning to Tennessee, he walked ten miles each day after work to study Latin, German, and algebra with a white Vanderbilt student.4 He entered Fisk University in 1878, earning a Peabody Scholarship5 to pay his way.

While still enrolled at Fisk, McElwee won a seat in the 43rd Tennessee General Assembly (1882), representing Haywood County.6 He graduated the following May, just as his first House term ended.7 In 1884, at age 25, he became secretary of the Tennessee Convention, a state-wide gathering of black leaders,8 and served as a state delegate to the Republican National Convention.9

McElwee entered Nashville’s Central Tennessee College during his second legislative term, earning a law degree in 1885.10 He became the focus of a historic vote after former U.S. Senator Roderick Butler nominated him for House Speaker. Although unable to surmount a large Democratic majority, the 26-year-old former slave received 32 of the 93 votes cast.11

The first black Tennessean elected to a third legislative term (1887), McElwee pleaded for stronger legal powers over lynch mobs: “Great God, when will this Nation treat the Negro as an American citizen?”12 Despite his highly publicized speech, the House tabled the bill 41-36.13 Later that year McElwee spoke at Tuskegee Institute’s graduation14 and presided over the Colored World’s Fair Association.15 

In 1888 Samuel McElwee married the “handsome and cultured” Georgia Shelton.16 Their wedding party included many prominent Nashvillians, black and white. Fisk President E. M. Cravath officiated; guests included Charles Nelson, Granville P. Lipscomb, Dr. H. T. Noel, Dr. R. F. Boyd, Major E. B. Stahlman, and former Confederate General George Maney.17  

The State Republican Party elected McElwee delegate-at-large to the 1888 Republican National Convention,18 where he was a member of the committee on credentials.19 McElwee’s eloquent words about the potential role of African Americans in national politics helped persuade Benjamin Harrison to nominate former slave Frederick Douglass as ambassador to Haiti and to endorse bills prohibiting Southern states from obstructing African American suffrage.20

At home McElwee faced powerful political challenges to his campaign for an unprecedented fourth legislative term: Haywood County officials employed “disgraceful election methods”21 to ensure his defeat,22 and white separatists drove him from the county.  During the following term (1889) the all-white General Assembly approved legislation that would disfranchise black voters for decades.23

McElwee and his wife spent the next twelve years in Nashville, where he established a thriving law office.24 Both Samuel and Georgia were active in civic organizations, and their names regularly appeared in the social pages of the newspapers. In 1901 McElwee moved his wife and daughters to Chicago,25 where his legal practice flourished for over a decade. He won many important cases, including a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the City Railway Company.26 He died in Chicago October 21, 1914, at the age of 56. 27 (2014)


1 “Brave Tennessean Forgotten by History,” Nashville Tennessean, February 13, 1971.

2 “A Remarkable Negro,” Nashville Daily American, June 9, 1888.

3 “Brave Tennessean Forgotten by History.”

4 “The Death of Atty. Samuel A. McElwee,” Chicago Broad Axe, October 24, 1914.

5 Tennessee State Board of Education Minute Book, Volume 55, page 131.

6 McBride, Robert M., and Dan M. Robinson. Biographical Directory, Tennessee General Assembly, Volume II (1861-1901). Nashville: Tennessee State Library and Archives, and Tennessee Historical Commission, 1979.

7 Simmons, William J.  Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. Cleveland: G. M. Rewell & Co., 1887, 500.

8 “The Tennessee Convention: Colored Men in Council at Nashville—Vital Questions Ably Discussed—Resolutions setting forth the Grievances and Needs of the Race,” New York Globe, March 15, 1884.    

9 Johnson, Charles W. Republican Party (U.S.:1854-), 227. Official Proceedings of the Republican National Convention, Chicago, June 3, 4, 5 and 6, 1884, 21.

10 Simmons, William J.  Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. Cleveland: G. M. Rewell & Co., 1887, 500.

11 Tennessee General Assembly. Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Tennessee. Nashville: Tavel & Howe, 1885.

12 Nashville Union, February 23, 1887.

13 Tennessee General Assembly. Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Tennessee. Nashville: Tavel & Howe, 1886.

14 “Tuskegee Normal School: Celebrating Its Sixth Anniversary—An Exhibit of  Industries—Commencement Exercises,” New York Freeman, June 4, 1887.

15 “General Announcement. Colored World’s Exposition, 1887-’88,” Weekly Pelican, January 29, 1887.

16 “McElwee. A Southern Lawyer, the Brilliant Orator and Barrister,” Freeman, March 2, 1889.

17 “Hon. S. A. McElwee Married,” Nashville Daily American, June 7, 1888.

18 “A Remarkable Negro.”

19 Johnson, Charles W. Republican Party (U.S.:1854-), 227. Official Proceedings of the Republican National Convention, Chicago, June 3, 4, 5 and 6, 1884, 24.

20 Calhoun, Charles W. Benjamin Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The 23rd President, 1889-1893. New York: Times Books, 2013,

21 “McElwee. A Southern Lawyer, the Brilliant Orator and Barrister.”

22 Granberry, Dorothy. “When the Rabbit Foot Was Worked and Republican Votes Became Democratic Votes: Black Disfranchisement in Haywood County, Tennessee.”  Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. LXIII, No. 1, Spring 2004.

23 Lester, Connie L. “Disfranchising Laws.” Tennessee Encyclopedia, Online edition. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002-2014.

24 “An Eloquent Lawyer’s Great Effort Highly Complimented by Leading Whites,” Freeman, June 20, 1891.  Also “Professional Success,” Freeman, July 11, 1891.

25 “Chips,” Broad Axe, August 12, 1901.

26 “Chips,” Broad Axe, February 8, 1902

27 “Death Claims Samuel A. McElwee: Well Known Attorney Was Native of Brownsville, Tenn.—Was Member of Tennessee Legislature.” The Chicago Defender, October 24, 1914.


Cartwright, Joseph H.  The Triumph of Jim Crow: Tennessee Race Relations in the 1880s.  Knoxville: UT Press, 1976.

Couto, Richard A. Lifting the Veil: A Political History of the Struggles for Emancipation. Knoxville: UT Press, 1993.

Granberry, Dorothy. “When the Rabbit Foot Was Worked and Republican Votes Became Democratic Votes: Black Disfranchisement in Haywood County, Tennessee.”  Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. LXIII, No. 1, Spring 2004.

“This Honorable Body: African American Legislators in 19th Century Tennessee.” Exhibits, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Sampson W. Keeble, 1833-1887

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.

This bust of Representative Sampson W. Keeble was installed near the House Chamber in the Tennessee State Capitol in 2010. (photo used with permission of the sculptor, Roy Butler)

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 descendants at his historical marker in downtown Nashville. (photo from NHN collection)

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.”

Keeble-Cox tombstone in Greenwood Cemetery, Nashville.

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 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.

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.

1814 Nashville Fire

Primary Source Document, transcribed by Larry Michael Ellis.


Under the dispensations of divine providence, we have again to record the destructive effects of of [sic] this ungovernable element. – On Friday night last, about 10 o’clock, the citizens of this town were alarmed with the cry of fire! It proceeded from the hay-loft of Wm. W. Cooke, Esq. near Mr. Woods [sic] warehouse; it had gained such an ascendency [sic] & the buildings were so combustible, that the utmost exertions of the citizens could not save the large adjoining warehouse, filled with consignments to Joseph Woods esq commission merchant, the bindery, dwelling house and bookstore of Mr. Duncan Robertson, the tavern house of Robert Renfroe, the frame house of John Anderson esq, the house occupied by Mr. Ernest Benoit, baker, the shop of Messrs. E. and G. Hewlett saddlers above; the dwelling house of Wm. W. Cooke esq, the dwelling house occupied by Mr. S. V. Stout, the warehouse of Messrs. Read and Washington, army contractors, and their office, the shop & dwelling house of Mr. D. C. Snow, tin plate worker, below; the dwelling house of Joseph T. Elliston, and his silversmith shop, the dwelling house of the editor of the Clarion, & his printing office, the house lately occupied by Wm. M. Wallace, as a shoemaker’s shop and the house occupied be Joseph Sumner, the property of Mr. John Young, the office of the Nashville Whig, and the hatter’s shop of Mr. Joshua Pilcher, and the brick store-house occupied by W. Tannehill, esq. above on the east of Market street, & all the frame buildings on the same side opposite to bank alley, making in the whole the most destructive fire ever experienced in the western country. No language can paint the distress of many of the sufferers, who were left without bread, meat, dishes or plates, or a covering except the heavens. In the whole range of the fire we are however gratified that no lives were lost, and we hope that in a few years a majority of the sufferers will be able to replace the property they have thus lost.

In some few cases we are, however, sorry to learn the individuals are ruined. It is impossible at present to form any estimate of the immense loss sustained – nearly one half the buildings that were in the town are in ashes; much furniture and other valuable property was lost in the flames. Among the sufferers, the Editor of this Paper finds it necessary to repeat that he was one – his Printing Office contained many printed books and pamphlets, the most of which were lost, and he is sorry to state, in that situation is the Journal of the proceedings of the last Gener- Assembly [sic], which was nearly entirely lost. Of the Journal of the house of Representatives, it is believed a copy can be made out; but of the Senate, there is not the least hope of ever recovering one, for the printing and manuscript shared the same fate. Of the heavy editions of law books, &c. &c in the house, it is believed scarcely a copy remains; and of the printing apparatus, a considerable part was lost; but one press and nearly all the type was saved. For the satisfaction of the members of the last General Assembly, he is thus particular, that the loss of the public Journals may be rightly understood.

The fire was communicated, we have little doubt, by some incendiary – who is not yet ascertained.