On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Expulsions and Ousters: The Threat in Tennessee,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman positioned the expulsions and reinstatements of Tennessee legislators Justin Pearson and Justin Jones in American history, exploring similar incidents from 1875 Mississippi, 1920 New York, and 1986 California. The efforts by the Republican majority in the Tennessee House of Representatives to expel Jones and Pearson, both young Black men, evokes the struggles of Tennessee’s first fourteen Black state legislators in the decades after the Civil War. Samuel Allen McElwee, one of these select few, was also effectively expelled from the General Assembly, following a dramatic tenure of resistance and advocacy.
In 1887, famed Black minister Reverend William J. Simmons published Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising. The book was a collection of 177 biographical sketches showcasing Black leaders, from Boston Massacre martyr Crispus Attucks to Frederick Douglass.
Simmons also included the stories of several then-contemporary Black heroes, including Samuel Allen McElwee – a man whose determined fight against repressive state leaders reflects the current activism of Pearson and Jones.
Simmons opened his sketch with a declaration of McElwee’s struggle: “Samuel Allen McElwee is a brave soul, who can wear on his forehead ad astra per aspera – ‘through difficulties to the stars.’”
He then detailed McElwee’s beginnings in Brownsville, Tennessee, where he was born into slavery in 1859. After Emancipation, his parents farmed nearby, while McElwee, per Simmons, doggedly taught himself to read. “The boy studied until midnight, burning patiently the light which would give him opportunity to read, and which in after years gave him a brighter light whereby he might see the condition of his race and find a remedy for their many ills,” Simmons wrote.
McElwee’s studies soon gave him access to higher education. In 1875, at 16, he briefly attended Oberlin College in Ohio for a year. He waited tables, picked currants, and washed windows to pay for his board. Unable to afford continuing his studies, he returned to the South, teaching school in Mississippi and Tennessee. He also had a stint as a traveling salesman outside of Nashville, peddling historical books, bibles, and medicines.
Two nights a week, he walked ten miles to study Latin with a white Vanderbilt University student. The student was so impressed with McElwee’s resolve that he reached out to the President of the historically-Black Fisk University, who offered McElwee enrollment. Simmons editorialized in his account: “If this effort meets some young man’s eyes it is sincerely hoped he will make the same effort as young McElwee.”
The highly-selective Fisk had only offered 48 bachelor degrees in its two-decade existence, and McElwee’s impressive performance vaulted him into the public eye. In 1882, while still a student, he ran for the Tennessee General Assembly from his native Haywood County. He won convincingly, even as he planned his law school studies at nearby Central Tennessee College.
The new representative quickly distinguished himself, introducing a bill to increase state funding for Black teacher training from $300 to $5,000. Although his bill did not pass, McElwee’s impassioned oratory led his new colleagues to present him with a gold watch as a welcome gift. He continued to fight to secure state appropriations for marginalized groups, eventually securing $85,000 for the construction of a new psychiatric hospital.
McElwee began to receive national attention. After giving a speech on behalf of the Republican Party in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a newspaper editor wrote, “No colored man in the South ever rose as rapidly upon the rounds of the ladder of fame.”
The editor also invoked the then-popular, decidedly racist and pseudoscientific skull science of phrenology in his assessment of McElwee’s skills: “His countenance is pleasing and the formation of his head favorable to the belief that he possesses a phrenological development of a very superior character.”
McElwee used his growing public profile to work for the elections and appointments of other Black men in Tennessee. In 1884, for example, he led a delegation of 48 Black men from his native Haywood County to a statewide Republican convention.
The hard work paid off. In a surreal January 1885 endorsement, white state representative Roderick R. Butler nominated McElwee to serve as Speaker of the Tennessee General Assembly. Butler, a Unionist during the Civil War, had been a powerful U.S. Representative during the first years of Reconstruction before rejoining the Tennessee Assembly.
In his nomination speech, Butler reflected on his own past as an enslaver: “I am proud of this occasion, and it is but another evidence of where the race must look for recognition. Having been born in the midst of slavery, and a slave-holder myself, I am grateful to know that I state the feelings and sentiments of my party associates.”
In a floor speech on February 23rd, 1887, McElwee introduced progressive anti-lynching legislation. He challenged his fellow legislators to consider the religious tenets of his bill: “In this age of Christian civilization, and educated as we are in religious institutions, surely there is no one in this body who will oppose a measure that seeks to prevent mob violence in the state of Tennessee.”
McElwee’s speech, widely reprinted in the Tennessee press, argued fiercely for due process for Black Tennessians accused of crimes: “Let Tennessee with her boasted institutions of civilization take a high stand in favor of order and law; and by so doing serve notice on this southern country that the time is now ripe for every man under the American flag, who is charged with a crime, though he be blacker than the Egyptian night, have the protection vouchsafed by the constitution of the state.”
The oration referenced lynchings that had received significant press attention in the preceding months. McElwee focused in particular on the August 1866 Jackson, Tennessee lynching of a Black cook, Eliza Woods, who was hung and shot five times by a white mob after she was accused of putting rat poison in her employer’s food – a crime to which her employer’s husband later confessed.
“Go with me, Mr. Speaker and gentlemen, to Jackson and look at that poor woman, with that weakness and tenderness common to women, as she is taken from the jail and followed by that motley crowd to the courtyard,” McElwee implored his colleagues.
After ticking through the names of several other victims, McElwee observed the sheer number of lynching reports from the press – and the similarity of the brutal extrajudicial crimes: “It is remarkable to note the sameness with which all these reports read; it seems as if some man in this country had the patent by which these reports are written. Statistics do not show the number of negroes who have in the past few years been sentenced in Judge Lynch’s court.”
While McElwee’s anti-lynching bill narrowly failed, his place in the national Republican Party continued to grow. In June 1888, he appeared at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, where he offered a paean to Black Southern Republicans. “Oppressed by Southern Democrats, and forsaken by the Republicans of the North, we have stood firm and remained true and loyal to the cause of the party we regard as the grandest that ever existed on the American continent,” McElwee orated.
But just as McElwee’s political stature was reaching a new zenith, local politicians in Haywood County were plotting his downfall. In June 1887, the county’s Republican Sheriff, who was broadly supportive of Black candidates, died. Leading White Supremacist businessmen put forth a Democrat in his place, who turned a blind eye to mob efforts designed to suppress the Black vote.
Historian Richard Couto recounted the organized efforts to defeat McElwee in his November 1888 reelection campaign in his 1993 Lifting the Veil: A Political History of Struggles for Emancipation: “On Election Day…men with rifles…roamed Haywood County, stood by polling places, and ‘guarded’ the ballot boxes and the places where ballots were counted.”
McElwee patrolled the county, attempting to push his Black constituents to vote despite the intimidation tactics, but he ultimately went inside after fears that he would be targeted by an armed group. He received only 732 votes, around one-third of his total in the previous 1886 election. As the votes were tabulated, more White Supremacists arrived to quell any potential resistance, armed, according to the local press, with “shotguns, Winchesters, carbines to squelch any inclinations among the defeated Republicans to rise.”
Thus, while McElwee was not formally expelled from the legislature, he was effectively pushed out through violence and fraud. He remains the last Black legislator to win a Haywood County election.
Out of office, McElwee, in private law practice, took on a more militant tone. On New Year’s Day 1890, 2,000 Black Nashville residents attended a parade to honor the 27th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. McElwee was the keynote speaker, delivering a lecture entitled, “What Should Be the Future Conduct of the Negro as a Race.”
McElwee used the speech to argue for Black self-determination and to stop relying on white support – a position likely influenced by his experience in Haywood County: “We deceive ourselves if we think that our interests, in the hands of the leaders of another race will be so guarded and protected to give permanent success and complete victory over the opposing interests of that race. Our future is in our own hands, and it will be what we make it.”
By the mid-1890s, McElwee had largely turned on the Republican Party, which had acquiesced to the anti-Black vitriol of Southern Democrats by crafting the “Lily White” movement, a quest to purge state GOP ranks of Black members. In an 1894 address before a Nashville meeting of Black Republicans, McElwee told the assembly to cynically vote for Democrats as revenge for their poor treatment.
The Nashville American paraphrased McElwee as saying, “The negro had supported the Republican Party for thirty years. What had they to show as benefits derived? Nothing. They had supported the party manfully and earnestly and been kicked out as compensation.”
McElwee’s loss of faith in the Tennessee political establishment was complete. He left the state for Chicago in 1901, where he led a successful law practice for a primarily Jewish client base until his death in 1914.
By the time McElwee headed North, there was no Black representation in the Tennessee General Assembly. The first Black Assembly member of the 20th century, Archie Walter Willis, Jr., would not be elected until 1964.
McElwee’s battle for representation and disillusionment at the racism and cronyism of the Tennessee legislature took place only a bit more than a century ago. As Pearson and Jones battle for recognition against an aggressive Tennessee GOP today, McElwee’s rise and fall looms large.
For much more on Tennessee’s fourteen 19th-century state legislators, check out the excellent Tennessee State Library and Archives portal “This Honorable Body.”
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
To receive Time Machine articles in your inbox, sign up to receive the CAFE Brief newsletter sent every Friday.
Catch up on some recent Time Machine deep dives into history:
- ‘It Could Have Happened to Anybody’: Professor Frederick Barghoorn, President Kennedy, and Soviet Detainments
- ‘A New Testing Period’: Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and President Gerald Ford’s First Meeting
- ‘Calling Bob Morgenthau’: The Tensions Between the Manhattan District Attorney and President George H.W. Bush