by Kathy B. Lauder.
Tennessee is often credited with passage of the first “Jim Crow” law (1881), which required racial segregation in train cars. However, the state had actually passed a comparable law, Chapter 130 of the Acts of Tennessee, in 1875, soon after Sampson Keeble’s legislative term ended. Chapter 130 permitted discrimination in public places – not merely trains and streetcars, but also hotels, restaurants, theaters, circuses, museums, and steamboats.1
The last Confederate state to secede from the Union and the first to return, Tennessee had revised the state constitution to prohibit slavery and quickly ratified both the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 gave African Americans the right to make contracts, to inherit property, to sue, and to enjoy equal benefits and protections under the laws . . . but not the right to vote. However, two seemingly unrelated events were aligning to produce significant changes.
First, Nashville’s influential black leaders (Sampson Keeble, Nelson G. Merry, and others) hosted the second State Colored Men’s Convention in Nashville in August 1866 and organized daily demonstrations at the Capitol urging the passage of legislation to grant voting rights to black citizens. At the same time, Governor William Gannaway “Parson” Brownlow, a man with many enemies, realized African American votes could greatly improve his chances for reelection. He shepherded a law through the Tennessee General Assembly in February 1867 that granted African American men the right to vote and to hold political office2 – three full years before the ratification of the 15th Amendment (which, incidentally, Tennessee lawmakers failed to approve until 1997).3
Within a year Nashville voters had elected an African American to its city council; by 1868 six of the twenty members were black.4 Memphis and Chattanooga quickly followed suit. In 1872 the first African American legislator, Nashville barber Sampson W. Keeble, was elected to the Tennessee House. The apprehension of white voters about the number of blacks suddenly occupying positions of authority set the stage for Tennessee’s first Jim Crow law.
During the 1875 Session of the General Assembly, Democrat R. P. Cole (Carroll, Gibson, Henry, and Weakley) introduced House Bill 527, which passed to the Judiciary Committee for approval. The committee modified the bill’s blatantly racist language to ensure passage, and both houses approved it – Tennessee had passed a law discriminating against one-fourth of its own citizens.
Using terminology shocking to modern sensibilities, Cole’s bill approved the exclusion of persons “whose hair has a spiral curvature, not greater than one fourth of one inch radius,” “whose ancestors were canibals [sic], or were guilty of the practice of voodoism,” or whose physical characteristics corresponded to certain racial stereotypes, all “without regard to race color or previous condition of servitude.” Judiciary Committee members agreed they “fully approve of the principles embodied therein,” but muted the provocative language to avoid a legal battle with the federal government. Although several of the 19th century black legislators introduced bills to overturn Chapter 130, none succeeded. (2015)
A transcription of the bill, including committee notes, can be viewed here: https://sharetngov.tnsosfiles.com/tsla/exhibits/blackhistory/pdfs/chapter130.pdf
1 HB 527 (1875), Record Group 60, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville, TN.
2 Cartwright, Joseph H. The Triumph of Jim Crow: Tennessee Race Relations in the 1880s. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976, 9-11.
3 Brown, Representative Tommie F. (Tennessee House District #28, Hamilton County). Interview by Kathy B. Lauder. Nashville, Tennessee, June 10, 2008. (Original tape is housed at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville, TN.)
4 Rabinowitz, Howard N. Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890, 2nd ed. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1996, 265.
“This Honorable Body: African American Legislators in 19th Century Tennessee.” Tennessee State Library and Archives website. https://sharetngov.tnsosfiles.com/tsla/exhibits/blackhistory/index.htm
A slightly different version of this article appeared in the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, vol. XXIV, no. 2. https://sharetngov.tnsosfiles.com/tsla/exhibits/blackhistory/pdfs/Jim%20Crow%20MTGS.pdf