Samuel McElwee

Samuel McElwee
PHOTO: TN State Library & Archives


The most prominent African American to serve in the Tennessee legislature during the Reconstruction era, Samuel McElwee’s life could make a great movie.

He was born as a slave in Madison County (in what we think was the year 1857). After the Civil War he moved to Haywood County and received an education at a Freedman’s Bureau school there.

“Having been taught to read by his former master’s children, he moved quickly through school, even though he had to devote much of the year to farm work,” a web site produced by the Tennessee State Library says. “By 16 he was a teacher himself; at 18 he attended Oberlin College for a year, paying his way by washing windows, waiting tables, and picking fruit.”

A historic marker in Nashville

In 1882, while still a student at Fisk University, he was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives. He was elected two other times, making him the only African-American who served in the Tennessee legislature three times during Reconstruction. It was during his second term that he was nominated by his fellow Republicans to be speaker of the Tennessee State House. He didn’t win that post, but received 32 votes, which shows that he had earned the high respect of many of his fellow white legislators.

However, in the late 1880s, McElwee and other African-Americans were removed from the Tennessee General Assembly through a series of legal maneuvers and acts of intimidation. McElwee later left Tennessee for Chicago, Illinois, where he worked as a lawyer for the rest of his career.