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.
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
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. Ancestry.com. U.S.City Directories, 1821-1989 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2011.
4 Nashville, Tennessee, City Directory, 1878. Ancestry.com. U.S.City Directories, 1821-1989 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com 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. https://sharetngov.tnsosfiles.com/tsla/exhibits/blackhistory/jimcrow.htm
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. https://sharetngov.tnsosfiles.com/tsla/exhibits/blackhistory/index.htm