Early years in slavery
Monroe Gooden was one of fourteen African American men, most of them former slaves, elected to the Tennessee General Assembly during the three decades following the Civil War. The only black Democrat in the House during the 19th century, Gooden became a powerful figure in the same county where he had been raised in slavery.
Gooden's death certificate recorded his birthdate as October 26, 1852, and his death, of an “aortic obstruction,” on January 19, 1915. Although the Biographical Directory of the Tennessee General Assembly included the same death date, it said he was born on May 10, 1848, which corresponds with the age Gooden consistently gave in census records and is more likely correct.
The death certificate also stated that the future legislator was born in Fayette County, Tennessee, to Monroe Gooden Senior and an unknown mother. The omission of the mother's name is regrettable, for it might have provided a valuable clue to the family's history -- slaves usually had the same masters as their mothers, at least during their early years. We do know that the neighborhood where the Goodens lived was in the north-central part of Fayette County, along the line between Civil Districts 4 and 5, and only two or three miles from the Haywood County line. In fact, Charles G. Feild's plantation (Feild was the slave owner of Representative John W. Boyd's mother) was just over the county line in Haywood County, only a few miles away.
Although we still do not know exactly which plantation was Monroe Gooden's birthplace, we can identify three possible choices bordering each other in that neighborhood: the Baskerville and Tucker plantations in District 4 and the Harwell plantation in District 5. Since slaves generally took spouses from their own or adjoining plantations, a trend that continued throughout Reconstruction, it is likely that Gooden was born on one of these three plantations.
The question of where Gooden and his sister Lucinda lived during the period of slavery has also not been completely answered. We are quite certain that they were Monroe Senior's only children, and it seems likely that their mother died when they were very young. Slave schedule/census records rule out either the Tucker or Baskerville plantations. However, clues to their childhood home may perhaps be found in Civil War enrollment and pension records. Monroe W. evidently enrolled in the Federal army as "Monroe Harvey," serving with the 1st West Tennessee Infantry Regiment (African descent), which later became the 59th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, seeing action in northern Mississippi (at Brice’s Crossroads and Harrisburg) and in the Memphis area. Gooden’s widow, applying for a pension after his death, listed "Monroe Harvey" as his alias. Matching this name to a late 1860s Fayette County record of a "Monroe Harwell" (who does not appear in the census), one wonders whether the young soldier's name should have been written as "Harwell" rather than "Harvey," and whether the two Gooden children did, in fact, grow up on the Harwell plantation in District 5.
That plantation was owned by Dr. Frederick Harwell, a native of Brunswick County, Virginia. Around 1810 several members of his family had moved to Giles County in Middle Tennessee. Twenty years later Dr. Harwell and his wife moved west to District 5 in Fayette County, where they established a large plantation with more than 1,000 acres and approximately 80 slaves. Several intriguing anecdotes about the family still survive. According to one story from late in the Civil War, Dr. Harwell, quite elderly by that time, took a little slave girl along to help him bury his money to protect it from approaching Yankee soldiers. Several descendants of that girl tell how she wracked her brain for the rest of her life, trying to remember where the money was buried. Over the years many people attempted to find the hidden treasure, but with no success. It was not until the 1940s that Jacob Harwell Junior, whose father had been adopted by a slave from that plantation, was plowing in one of the fields and dug up part of the money! Descendants of John Yarbrough, the driver on the plantation [A driver was a high-ranking slave used as an overseer.], tell a story about Union soldiers who hung Yarbrough upside down from a tree to convince him to reveal where the Harwells' valuables were hidden.
The Harwells were childless so, when both of them died during the final year of the Civil War, they willed their property to two Giles County nephews, who continued as absentee owners to operate the Harwell plantation for another 40 years. During that period several mortgages were filed by Monroe W. Gooden for crops "grown on the Harwell place" [on the Somerville-to-Covington road, where the Bernard School was later located]. Combining that information with the available census records, one can draw the conclusion that Gooden was renting and living in the old Harwell manor house during much of the late 1800s. Oral history suggests that Monroe Gooden was a "big operator" with many sharecroppers working under him. Whether or not he was originally a Harwell slave, it is evident that he was, in time, the de facto "master" of the Harwell plantation.
Marriage to Ann Baskerville and life after the Civil War
We do know that Monroe W. Gooden's wife Ann came from the Baskerville plantation owned by the Reverend John Tabb Baskerville, a well-known Methodist minister of the area, and a native of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, which had been home to a number of the large land-owners of southwest Tennessee. A family story says that the white Baskervilles taught at least one of their young female slaves to read and later gave her enough money to purchase 100 acres of property. Monroe W. Gooden and Ann Baskerville were married in Somerville on December 29, 1866, not long after Monroe Senior married Hannah Hare, another former slave from the Baskerville plantation. It is interesting to note that Monroe Senior's marriage record lists his surname as "Tucker," suggesting (since freed slaves often chose the surname of their original owner, rather than the most recent one) that he had at some point been a slave of Joseph C. C. Tucker on yet another plantation adjoining that of the Baskervilles.
By the time of the 1870 census both Monroe W. and Monroe Senior were living in District 4. The elder Gooden was at that time 48 years old, which would date his birth in 1822, during the presidency of James Monroe, for whom he was probably named. The family surname in this particular census is spelled "Goodwin," providing an additional clue to their history -- in the 1820s the Goodwyn family were among the largest slave-holders in Dinwiddie County, Virginia . . . which was also the original home of Joseph C. C. Tucker! It is quite possible that Monroe Senior was born in Virginia as a Goodwyn slave but was traded or purchased and brought to Fayette County by the Tucker family.
On March 2, 1872, Monroe Gooden Senior became one of the first African Americans in Fayette County to own land, when he purchased two tracts, amounting to about 250 acres, from A. D. Stainback (Fayette Deed Book 2, page 57) in a transaction known as a title bond. This was an instrument of sale whereby the title passed to the new owner, although no deed was conferred until payment was made in full. Six years later, after the death of Monroe Senior, the administrator of A. D. Stainback's estate gave a deed for the property to "the heirs of Monroe Gooden," identified as his widow Hannah and his two children, Monroe Gooden Junior and Lucinda Gooden McNeal (Fayette Deed Book 7, page 345, 25 February 1878). Monroe's sister Lucinda, who married Austin McNeal, owned a house and lot in the town of Mason during the early 1900s. She was known around town as "Aunt Cindy McNeal" and lived to be quite an old woman. Regrettably, her death certificate provided no information about her parentage.
A deed from January 25, 1881 (Fayette Deed Book 9, page 618), provides for one-half acre to be used as the site for a school for colored children. The school directors for Civil District 5 during that period were identified as W. A. Rives, M. W. Goodwin [Gooden], and James H. Cocke. Both Rives and Cocke were white men.
Election to the Tennessee General Assembly
There is little doubt that by this time Monroe W. Gooden had risen to a very prominent position in the community. The only African American Democrat elected to the Tennessee legislature in the 19th century, he represented Fayette County in the 45th General Assembly, 1887-1888. The Tennessee Star’s report of the election contained several errors: “The three colored members of the Legislature are Hons. S. A. McElwee of Haywood, S. S. [sic] Hutchins of Hamilton, and N. W. Gooden of Lafayette. The two last gentlemen are new members. Mr. Hutchins is a lawyer by profession, as is also Mr. McElwee.” [Note: the incorrect initials occur in the original, and, of course, Gooden was from Fayette County.] It is unlikely that Gooden’s beliefs corresponded to those of Southern Democrats of the period, and more likely that he identified himself as a Democrat in order to ingratiate himself with the Democratic voting bloc of the county. A brief reference to party affiliation in his obituary suggests that he took little interest in political affairs after his single term in the legislature, although his failure to vote after that time may also be attributed to the new laws designed to restrict African American voting.
Gooden was the second black representative from Fayette County, following Republican David F. Rivers, who had served in the 43rd General Assembly. Gooden’s legislative career was rather unimposing. He was appointed to the Agriculture and Federal Relations committees, and he introduced two bills: HB 360 would have paid mileage costs of witnesses in state legal cases; HB 765 would have made it a misdemeanor for candidates to be present at the counting of ballots. (It is intriguing to imagine the circumstances that convinced him of the need for such a bill.) The first bill was referred to the Finance Committee, and the second to Judiciary. Both were tabled in committee and never came to the House floor for debate or vote.
From 1830 to 1980 the population of Fayette County consisted of many more African Americans than whites -- by 1865 the ratio was two to one -- yet to this day these Rivers and Gooden are the only black legislators ever elected to represent the county. Although many African American legislators have represented the city of Memphis from 1965 to the present day, Representative Johnny Shaw, elected to the 102nd General Assembly in 2001 to represent Hardeman and part of Madison County, was the first African American to represent any rural county in West Tennessee in the 77 years since Monroe Gooden’s term ended in 1888.
A legislative biography identifies Gooden as a "farmer and ginner near Somerville, Fayette County," and lists him as a member of the Masonic order. [African American Freemasons organizations have existed in the United States since 1775, and the number of black lodges increased significantly after the Civil War.] He was also a trustee of the Williamson Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.
Around the time he was elected to the legislature, Monroe W. Gooden began to acquire large tracts of land. One such purchase, recorded on November 22, 1887, was for 372 acres. He bought more land in 1890, and seven years later purchased another still large tract totaling over 500 acres. By the end of his life he owned at least a thousand acres, including the former Patterson plantation in the Brewer community. This property had been owned before the Civil War by General Bernard Markham Patterson (originally Patteson), another native Virginian and wealthy planter, who had also spent time in Giles County before coming to West Tennessee. At some point between 1890 and 1900 Gooden moved his family into the old Patterson plantation house, a comfortable two-story white frame building.
The Goodens had a large number of children: Mary, Monroe J., John, James/Jim, Lillie Bell, and Willa Ola Gooden. Ann already had a son, Dempsey (Demp) Shivers, when she married Monroe Gooden; he is listed with the family in the 1880 census. Monroe W. had at least one other child as well, a son named Frank Gooden, whose mother was Mollie Coe. The 1900 census made it clear that Gooden could read and write and that he owned the farm where his family resided. The household had become quite complex by that time, now including two Gooden grand-children, Monroe’s widowed sister, Ann’s widowed mother, and a teen-aged farm hand.
A brief obituary of Monroe Gooden appeared in the January 22, 1915, edition of the Fayette Falcon, Somerville, Tennessee. Its reference to his failure to vote for many years attests to the impact of the Jim Crow laws that barred Southern blacks from voting after the 1890s.
Fayette county lost one of her best colored citizens on last Tuesday when Monroe J. Gooden of the fifth district, died at a ripe old age. Monroe was one of the most thrifty men of his race in the county and owned several hundred acres of good land. He lived on this land and can be counted as a good citizen. He was quiet, unpretentious, and lived in peace and harmony with his white neighbors, holding their friendship and respect. He represented Fayette county in the state legislature in 1887 and was the last negro to sit in a legislature in any of the southern states during the reconstruction times. In recent years he has taken no part in politics, never even voting for years. Many negroes could help to improve the condition and standing of their race by emulating the example of honesty and right living set by Monroe Gooden.
After his death, Monroe Gooden was buried in the family section he had established in the Patterson cemetery, which was originally the slave burial ground on the plantation. (Tennessee death records call it the “Petterson Grave Yard.”) Most of Gooden’s family members are buried there with him. Nearly all the people interred at that site can trace their roots to the Patterson slaves. Several such cemeteries survive in District 5, all bearing the names of the original plantation owners. Although some are abandoned, several others, including the Patterson cemetery, are still in use today.
Monroe Gooden, along with Samuel A McElwee and Styles L. Hutchins, his two colleagues in the 45th General Assembly (1887-1888), were the last African Americans to serve in the Tennessee legislature until 1965, nearly eight decades later!
Based on the research of John W. Marshall, Memphis, TN, author of The Early History of Mason (1985) and Mason: A Glimpse into the Past (1991). KBL 11/06/2012