A childhood in slavery
Samuel A. McElwee was born a slave in Brownsville, Haywood County, Tennessee, in 1859. After emancipation his parents, Robert and Georgiana McElwee, purchased a Haywood County farm. McElwee attended Freedmen’s Bureau schools, although, since he was needed at home to help with the farm work, he could rarely attend school more than three or four months a year. However, his former master’s children had reportedly taught him to read as a young child, and he was a hard worker who “studied until midnight, burning patiently the light which would give him opportunity to read,” as an 1888 Nashville Daily American article asserted. His efforts enabled him to pass all the tests the schools required, and by the age of sixteen he was teaching in a Hayward County school.
Education and election
In 1875 McElwee attended Oberlin College in Ohio for a year, paying for his education by washing dishes and windows, waiting tables, and picking currants. He supported himself as a teacher for five years in Mississippi and another year in Alabama, also peddling patent medicine, books, and Bibles on the side, and acquiring the nickname, “the chill doctor.” Two nights a week, after teaching all day, he walked ten miles to study Latin, German, and algebra with a white Vanderbilt student. The youthful tutor eventually called the attention of Fisk University officials to his student’s astounding aptitude, and McElwee was able to enroll at Fisk in 1878. In 1882, while still a university student, the 24-year-old won a seat in the 43rd Tennessee General Assembly as representative of Haywood County. His name is also listed in the State School Board minutes for January 10, 1883, as the recipient of a Peabody Scholarship to Fisk University. During his first legislative term he was successful in amending the Normal School bill to provide funds for African American teacher education. Most of his other bills that term, including one that would have enforced racially equitable jury selection, were not successful.
McElwee graduated from Fisk on May 26, 1883, at the end of his first legislative term, opened a store in Haywood County, brokered cotton, and began reading law on his own. In February 1884 he was elected secretary of the Tennessee Convention, a gathering of African American leaders from across the state. On the second day of the meeting, he delivered an eloquent address setting forth “the grievances of the race” and “urged the necessity of education.” Later the same year he joined James C. Napier as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, where a black newspaper favorably noted his self-confidence and drive. After his first wife died in 1885, McElwee placed his two small children with his wife's parents and entered Central Tennessee College (renamed Walden University in 1900) in Nashville, where he received a law degree in 1886.
Re-elected to his second term in the General Assembly (1885-1886), McElwee was the focal point of a historic vote. On Tuesday, January 6, 1885, Roderick R. Butler, a well-respected white legislator who had served as a U.S. Senator (1868-1875) before being elected to the Tennessee Legislature, nominated Samuel A. McElwee to be Speaker of the House of Representatives with these words:
Mr. Speaker: It affords me much pleasure to nominate a candidate for speaker, one who was a slave in the days of slavery, which I thank God have passed away. One that by his own strong arm and determined will, and being blessed with a splendid intellect, graduating a short time since at the Fisk University in this city with high honors, and those of us here who served with him in the last Legislature remember his gentlemanly bearing and industrious habits, always vigilant and active, looking after the interest of his constituents and especially his race. I mean the honorable S. A. McElwee of Haywood county. 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. I would not say a disparaging word of the gentleman nominated by the Democrats. I have served with him a long time, rating him to be an honest man & will preside over the deliberations of this house impartially and will treat the minority with fairness. While I say that much in justice to Mr. Hanson, I can say of a truth that S. A. McElwee is the peer of any member on this floor, and will make an excellent speaker, and it affords me much pleasure to vote for him.
Although control of the House was in the hands of the Democratic Party, and McElwee had little chance of being elected, the honor was a sincere one. McElwee, a 26-year-old black man only 20 years out of slavery, received 32 of the 93 votes cast. Butler, First District congressman and longtime East Tennessee party leader, continued to support most the bills proposed by the black legislators throughout his legislative career, reasoning that the Republican party could not afford to lose the support of African American voters.
In March 1885 Samuel McElwee delivered an address to hundreds in attendance at Tennessee Day of the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. While still in his 20s, the young legislator was developing a national reputation as an orator. The following year, freshly registered to practice law in Brownsville, Tennessee, he won his first court case against two experienced lawyers. According to historian Dorothy Granberry, McElwee was the first African American to practice law in Brownsville . . . and the last until the 1960s.
First African American elected to a third term in the Tennessee legislature
Samuel McElwee was the first black Tennessean elected to a third term, once again representing Haywood County in the (45th) General Assembly (1887-1888). During this session, McElwee gave a highly publicized speech in the House pleading for stronger legal powers over lynch mobs. "Great God, when will this Nation treat the Negro as an American citizen?” he cried. “As a humble representative of the Negro race, and as a member of this body, I stand here today and wave the flag of truce between the races and demand a reformation in Southern society." In spite of his powerful words, the House tabled the bill by a vote of forty-one to thirty-six. In 2006 the men of the Legislative Black Caucus reenacted McElwee's speech in a special ceremony to honor the African American legislators.
Throughout the 1880s, more than half of Haywood County’s voting population was African American. Encouraged by McElwee’s election to the General Assembly, black voters became much more interested in gaining a more equitable share of local political control. Not only did they send McElwee to Nashville for three terms in the General Assembly, but they also elected many others of their race to responsible positions in local government, including county registrar, district constable, and county court magistrate.
Having gained a national reputation by this time, Samuel A. McElwee was invited by Booker T. Washington to speak at the 1887 graduation of Tuskegee Institute. His address was described as “a masterpiece of sound practical common sense.” McElwee served as president of the Colored World’s Fair Association during that same year.
Marriage to Georgia M. Shelton
In 1888 Miss Georgia M. Shelton, described as a “handsome and cultured young lady,” became Samuel McElwee’s second wife. Their wedding guests represented Nashville’s “high society,” both black and white. The marriage ceremony was officiated by Erastus Milo Cravath, one of the founders of Fisk University and its president for more than 20 years. The Daily American ran a lengthy article about the wedding on June 7, 1888:
An event of interest in high colored society was the marriage of the Hon. Samuel Allen McElwee, a Republican delegate from the State at Large to the Chicago Convention, and the ablest colored Republican in Tennessee, to Miss Georgie Marie Shelton, daughter of the late John Shelton, at five o’clock yesterday afternoon. The marriage, which took place at the residence of the bride’s mother, on Maple street, was a very quiet one, only the immediate friends of the contracting parties & political allies of the groom being present. Among those in attendance were Gen. George Maney, Charles Nelson, Granville P. Lipscomb, Maj. E. B. Stahlman, Dr. R. F. Boyd, George C. Lampkins, J. H. Keeble, G. T. Robertson and President Cravath, Prof. A. K. Spence, Dr. H. T. Noel, Misses Cahill and Morgan, of Fisk University, and Miss Mamie Braden, of Central Tennessee College. At the hour mentioned the groom and bride walked into the parlor, preceded by Mrs. G. A. Shelton and Mrs. D. L. Lampsley, the bride’s aunt, when they were impressively married by President Cravath. Many congratulations followed the happy event. The bride was attired in a peach blossom grosgrain silk, with white tulle veil. The presents were numerous and elegant. After commingling with their friends for about an hour, the bridal pair left the house and took the evening train for Louisville, Cincinnati, Washington City, and New York, from which last named city they will go direct to Chicago, where the groom will go into and participate in the National Republican Convention. The bride was educated at the Central Tennessee College, and for a while taught a select school in West Tennessee. Her father was the late John Shelton, who served as a quartermaster’s agent, was elected jailer of Davidson County in 1869, in which position he served with credit to himself and honor to the county, and was subsequently one of the most faithful mail-carriers in this city until the time of his death.
[Note: George Maney, a Confederate General in the Civil War and then a powerful force for reconciliation during Reconstruction, was president of the Tennessee and Pacific Railroad, a State Senator, and ambassador at various times to Colombia, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Charles Nelson was a prominent businessman and distiller in Middle Tennessee, who reportedly urged his coffee delivery boy, Joel Cheek, to sell his coffee blend to the Maxwell House Hotel, and encouraged his butcher, H. G. Hill, to start a grocery store. Granville P. Lipscomb, half-brother to David Lipscomb, was a leader in the Lebanon Church of Christ. Major E. B. Stahlman founded the Nashville Banner and served as a director of both the Southern Railway & Steamship Association and the Louisville, New Albany, & Chicago Railroad. All of these individuals were white.]
In the summer of 1888 McElwee, now both a working lawyer and a new bridegroom, began his campaign for a fourth term in the Tennessee House of Representatives. Also in this whirlwind year, he served as temporary chairman of the state Republican gubernatorial convention, which nominated Alfred A. Taylor for Governor. [Taylor would lose the election to his younger brother Robert, a Democrat.] Judge A. M. Hughes, chairman of the state Republican executive committee, urged white delegates to give blacks a stronger role in developing party positions. Hughes himself seconded the nomination of Samuel A. McElwee as a delegate-at-large to the national convention. McElwee was elected unanimously and played an important role at the national convention, representing Tennessee on the credentials committee and nominating William R. Moore for vice-president.
In his nominating speech, McElwee stressed the important leadership role that blacks could play in the Republican party in Tennessee and elsewhere. The Republican platform insisted on “effective legislation to secure the integrity and purity of elections,” and presidential nominee Benjamin Harrison promised to pay increased attention to civil rights issues. In fact, during his presidency Harrison did endorse two bills aimed at preventing Southern states from denying African American suffrage, and he also appointed former slave Frederick Douglass as minister to Haiti, a post that McElwee himself had hoped to be offered. As he prepared to leave Washington, McElwee wrote Douglass a gracious letter upon hearing the news:
My dear Sir:
Accept my sincere congratulations upon your appointment as Minister to Hayti [sic]. Was a candidate myself for the place, and would have been glad had I succeeded, but since the Pres’t. saw proper to appoint you I desire to say I am pleased with the appointment. I am sure time will vindicate the wisdom of your appointment. You have my prayers & best wishes for your success and safe return. I leave tonight for home. Yours with sentiments of respect. S. A. McElwee
As he returned home after the national convention, McElwee’s star seemed to be on the rise. He received many invitations to speak at events across the country. However, his political career came to a sudden end later the same year, as white radicals came together to terrorize black voters in Haywood and Fayette counties.
Driven from Haywood County by white separatists
In November 1888 hostile West Tennessee Democrats and white separatists took no chances that the popular and respected McElwee might be returned to the legislature. Opponents maligned McElwee as a “corrupt and venal politician” who did not represent Haywood County’s interests in the General Assembly; men with guns patrolled the polling places to defend the “safety of the ballot box.” Armed patrols even stalked through neighborhoods. When McElwee attempted to rally voters, he was threatened by a group of white men with weapons. Blacks knew they would face economic reprisals if they attempted to vote, and few were willing to risk their meager sharecropper jobs in order to support him. McElwee received only about 700 votes, less than a third of the number he had received in the previous election. The Democrats claimed overwhelming victories in every precinct . . . even when the majority of voters in those districts were Republicans. McElwee was driven out of the county, fleeing with his family to Nashville for fear of his life. Loyal friends risked their own safety to help him escape. He would be the last African American ever to win a county-wide election in Haywood County.
Black voters filed suit with the Sixth Judicial Court, charging election fraud. On June 7, 1889, a federal grand jury brought indictments against more than 30 county election officials, and prosecutors prepared their case, based largely on the testimony of voters from District 2 – all the black voters, most known to be honest and respected members of the community, swore they had cast ballots for the Republican candidates. As soon as the court declared the evidence insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict against the election officials, local whites blatantly admitted that they had manipulated the vote count to assure a Democratic victory.
Jim Crow legislation
The following legislative term – when no African Americans were elected to the General Assembly – the work of the General Assembly featured the expeditious passage of several laws aimed at disfranchising black voters in Tennessee. The Dortch Law of 1889, which moved rapidly through the Democratic-controlled legislature, instituted a secret ballot to replace the pre-printed party ballot previously in use. It also allowed voters who had voted in 1857 (i.e., before African Americans were permitted to vote) to obtain help in marking their ballots. Thus, illiterate black voters were rendered helpless at the polls, while illiterate white voters could obtain all the help they needed in interpreting ballot issues. Anxiety about literacy tests, the new poll tax, unchecked election fraud, and threats of violence were sufficient to keep many black voters away from the polls for decades. Only one African American was elected to the General Assembly between 1888 and 1964 – Jesse M. H. Graham in 1897. House members quickly pronounced Graham unqualified to serve and declared his seat vacant.
Residence in Nashville
Even though he could not return to Haywood County, McElwee still seemed free to travel around the state without inconvenience. In February 1889, for example, “the Honorable S. A. McElwee” was listed among the guests at a Memphis banquet given by the Live Oak Club for “aristocrats of color.” Also present were Mr. and Mrs. Isham F. Norris, Mr. and Mrs. Robert R. Church (parents of Mary Church Terrell), and Ida B. Wells, whom McElwee had met in 1886, and with whom he carried on a spirited correspondence for many years.
Samuel McElwee and his wife Georgia lived in Nashville for about twelve years, during which time the former legislator established both a newspaper and a successful law practice. He made frequent appearances as speaker at special events in Tennessee and other states. His family attended the Methodist Church, and their names often appeared on the social pages. McElwee was active in African American and civic organizations and became friends with James C. Napier, a well-known black council member. He and Napier served together on the original executive committee appointed to plan the Negro Department and Building at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897. McElwee, experienced in planning and promoting African American fairs in Tennessee, had taken part in the planning of the New Orleans Exposition in 1885. However, neither he nor Napier was still involved with the Centennial Exposition by the time of its opening.
The 1900 census showed Samuel (whose entry said he was born in June 1857) and Georgia McElwee residing at 75 Maple Street. (They had paid off the mortgage on their house.) With them were children Ethel (10) and Helen (7), and Georgia’s mother. Four other children had died in infancy. McElwee had been forced to put his Haywood County land holdings under the name of his mother-in-law to keep his property from being stolen by unscrupulous white neighbors. Many black residents were robbed of their land during these years, but records show the family still owned 95 acres in Haywood County under the name of Georgiana Shelton as late as 1900.
Final years in Chicago
In July 1901 McElwee joined the movement north and resettled his family in Chicago, a focal point of African American migration. The 1900 Chicago Census lists 3,216 native non-whites from Tennessee, a number exceeded only by emigrants from Kentucky and elsewhere in Illinois. McElwee developed a profitable law practice there, and his name often appeared in Chicago newspapers. By 1910 he was one of 44 black lawyers in the city, competing with 3,822 white attorneys. His obituary in the Chicago Broad Axe mentioned that “his clients were composed exclusively of Jewish people.” One of the highlights of his career was winning a three-million-dollar lawsuit against the Chicago City Railway Company. He and his law partner, W. W. Johnson, made the news in 1912 when they opened a branch office of their firm in McElwee’s home, offering the special feature of a night office: “Legal service can be secured at any time.” McElwee also continued to build his reputation as a public speaker, delivering addresses at many civic and social events. He died in Chicago on October 21, 1914, at the age of 56, leaving his wife, three young daughters, and his father (83) and mother (90), who still lived on their Brownsville farm in West Tennessee. Samuel McElwee was laid to rest in Glenwood Cemetery, now Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens (South). KBL 11/08/2012