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At the end of the Civil War, after ratification of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, there was a relatively brief fifteen year period where voters elected and the Tennessee Legislature seated African-American legislators. The first was Sampson Keeble in 1873, and he was followed by a dozen more after him. These men were former slaves, businessmen, teachers, lawyers and farmers from Davidson, Tipton, Shelby, Fayette and other counties around the state. However, they struggled and sometimes lost against the forces opposing them both in the legislature and in their hometowns. Those forces used black codes, vote suppression, ballot rigging, threats and violence against them. In more than one case, the legislator fled the state for safety. In 1888, the last of the elected black legislators left office. One more was elected in 1896, reportedly "by the largest vote for any legislative candidate" from that county, but he was denied his seat by the Legislature. The Tennessee Legislature would remain an all-white body from 1888 until 1964.


First Black Statesmen | The Citizenship Project | NPT

The end of the Civil War, after ratification of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments.


African American Legislators in 19th Century Tennessee

Production Credits

Ed Jones
Writer and Producer

LaTonya Turner
Associate Producer

Jackie Welch Schlicher

Jim DeMarco
Matt Emigh
Paul Mojonnier

Cameron Walls/ Statesman
Henry O. Arnold/ Sen. Roderick Butler
Eddie Charlton/ Frederick Douglass
and S.A. McElwee
Rob Wilds/ Newspaper Editor

Linda Wei
Web Producer

MiChelle Jones

Susie Thiemonge

Kevin Crane
Executive Producer

Joe DelMerico
Joey Hodge
Original Music

African American Legislators in 19th Century Tennessee links and information are provided by the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

The Citizenship Project is made possible by the support of Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area and the First Tennessee Foundation.