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.

Tennessee Politics 2002: A Year of Historic Change

by Pat Nolan.

Gov. Phil Bredesen

The recently concluded 2002 elections and their aftermath certainly left a historic mark on our state. The winds of change blew strongly, and much of it involved Nashvillians. We have a new governor, Phil Bredesen, a former mayor of our city and the first big city mayor to hold the state’s highest office. We have a new U.S. Senator, Lamar Alexander, who is a former governor and who has lived most of his adult life in Nashville. Finally, Bill Frist, our senior Senator, and a Nashville native, has been elevated to Majority Leader of the Senate, a position that arguably makes him one of the most powerful persons in the country, if not the world!

Dr. William H. Frist

The bruising and prolonged fight over a state income tax and a wave of state legislative retirements were also major political developments that led to change in 2002. The summer and fall elections brought the largest class of new lawmakers ever to our incoming General Assembly. But the single biggest factor in all the political change in Tennessee in 2002 came from the decision of Fred Thompson not to seek re-election to the U.S. Senate. That resulted in a fruit basket turnover of those holding office on the federal, state, and local levels. In fact, there is an almost direct link from Thompson’s decision to the election this past fall of Howard Gentry by Metro Nashville voters as the city’s first popularly elected black Vice Mayor. That’s because it was Thompson’s decision that led Bob Clement to vacate his Nashville congressional post and run (unsuccessfully) for the Senate. That, in turn, led Vice Mayor Ronnie Steine to run for Congress. During the campaign, Steine was implicated in a shoplifting scandal, which led to his resignation and the election of Gentry.

Howard Gentry Jr.

Furthermore, because of the changes on the senatorial and gubernatorial levels, there were very historic and interesting changes in our congressional delegation in Washington. For the first time in our memory, three of the four congressional districts which encompass the Greater Nashville and Middle Tennessee area (the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Districts) have new people now holding those seats. Yet despite all that change, some things remain the same. There has not been an incumbent Tennessee congressman defeated for re-election since 1974. That’s almost 30 years and counting!

Sen. Lamar Alexander (r) with Pres. George W. Bush

One other historic development came out of the last election about which there has been little public comment. A review of the records indicates that Lamar Alexander is the first person in the history of Tennessee to be popularly elected both Governor and U.S. Senator. Now that doesn’t mean we haven’t had people serve as both Governor and Senator. It’s happened several times. But all those occurred before the popular election of U.S. Senators. Back before 1912 and an amendment to the U.S Constitution, it was the state legislature, not the voters, who selected our Senators. Former Governor Frank Clement tried to make it to the Senate, but he was defeated by Howard Baker back in 1966.

This is not the first time Alexander has made statewide electoral history. He was also the first governor elected to two four-year terms. That was made possible again by a constitutional change (this time the Tennessee constitution). Governor Ray Blanton was the first governor to have the option to run again, but he declined.

Tennessee will have no statewide elections for almost four years (except for the 2004 Presidential election). So after a very active period of change, the election trail will be much quieter for a while. But as any student of politics, especially Tennessee politics, knows, it won’t ever be quiet politically around here for long.  (2002)

Author Pat Nolan

Editor’s note: Nashvillians know author Pat Nolan from his years of insightful election-night comments on WTVF television, where he also hosted “Inside Politics” and “Capitol View.” A graduate of Father Ryan High School and Vanderbilt University (where he was elected to the Student Media Hall of Fame for his distinguished career), Nolan later became Senior Vice President of DVL Seigenthaler Public Relations. We were extremely grateful to him for sharing this article with us after the momentous election of 2002.