Samuel McElwee, the influential Tennessee legislator who started teaching at age 16

Stephen Nartey January 16, 2023
Samuel McElwee/Photo credit: TN History for Kids

Samuel McElwee was raised as an enslaved African American in Madison County around 1857. McElwee was born to Robert and Georgiana McElwee in Madison Country. The family relocated to Haywood County where he began his education at a Freedman’s Bureau school. He had the benefit of tuition from his former owner’s children who taught him how to read and write.

Tennessee State Library indicated that he however spent much of his time working on the plantation. He furthered his education at the local freedmen’s schools and Oberlin College in Ohio. He picked fruits, washed windows and waited tables to raise his money to fund his education.

He started teaching at the age of 16 in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. He started Fisk University in 1878 and graduated in 1883 at the age of 26. He was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives while a student at Fisk University. He started his legal education at Nashville’s Central Tennessee College’s Law School where he obtained his law degree in 1886. McElwee achieved this feat while he was in the Tennessee legislature. While in the House, he was supported by three elected African Americans to navigate the political environment.

He learned the ropes of his role at the House and rose to become a lead spokesperson at the General Assembly where he advocated for equal education rights for the freedmen. He was at the forefront with fellow black legislators who fought against bills involving Jim Crowism and contract labor.

McElwee continued to practice law. He was involved in the real estate business and ran a grocery store even though he was a legislator. He became the only African American to have served in the Tennessee legislature three times during Reconstruction.

It was during his second time in the House that he was nominated by his fellow Republicans to be speaker of the Tennessee State House. He was defeated but he was resolute that the 32 votes he polled meant he had some degree of respect among members of the legislature.

The white Democrats and conservatives in Tennessee in the late 1880s engineered his removal from the General assembly through intimidation, manipulation of the legal system, and acts of harassment. They also employed attacks to whittle down voter turnout during the elections in heavily black communities such as Haywood and Fayette counties.

McElwee garnered less than 600 votes in the elections and was compelled to leave the county. A group of brave African-American men provided him with protection during his exit.

After McElwee’s departure, the radical whites launched a series of campaigns to rid the Tennessee government of black legislators through poll taxes, intimidation of black voters and attacks.

When McElwee moved from Tennessee in 1887 to Chicago, Illinois, he carried on his trade as a lawyer for the rest of his career. On June 6, 1888, he married his second wife, mulatto Georgia M. Shelton. McElwee passed away in October 1914.

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