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1849 – March 8, 1912


Early years in Memphis

Leon Howard appeared in various Memphis city directories beginning in 1870, when other family members were also listed in the census. He was 21 that year, living with his mother, Ellen, who was head of household; Fannie Faulkner, an 80-year-old woman who was probably Ellen’s mother; and his three brothers, Thomas (22) and Jeptha (19), both working as steam-boatmen, and Marcus (12), who would be called Muke or Mukes in later censuses. There were some interesting peculiarities in this record. Marcus, the 12-year-old, was reportedly the only family member who could read. Ellen, Leon, and Marcus were identified as white, while Fannie, Jeptha, and Thomas were said to be mulatto.

There is little information about Howard’s childhood, including whether he or other family members were slaves. Freedmen’s Bank records for both Leon and his brother “Jepp” mention their parents, Harrison Howard and Ellen Howard. Leon also stated that he was born in Marshall County, Mississippi, so it is likely he and his siblings were born into slavery.

There were several Harrison Howards listed in census and military records. The 1882 Memphis City Directory listed an African American laborer by that name living at 27 Ruth Street. USCT records include an artilleryman named Harrison Howard from Davis, Kentucky (5’7”, black complexion, black hair, black eyes). And Nashville City Death Records name Harrison Howard, 134 N. Cherry (4th Avenue), who died July 2, 1903, and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery. We have yet to connect any of them to Leon’s family.

Memphis city directories generally listed Leon’s occupation as “porter” during the decade between 1870 and 1880. A news article in the Daily Appeal on January 15, 1874, showed him to be a candidate for patrolman in an upcoming political election.

The 1880 census found Ellen Howard (53 and born in North Carolina) still acting as head of household and keeping house. Living with her were her sons Leonidas (30), Jephtha (26), and Muke (23), all born in Tennessee, all working as laborers, and all able to read and write. Also in the household was Pricilla [sic] Walker (40, born in Mississippi, listed as a daughter, although Ellen would have been only 13 years old when she was born). Leon was working as a porter for Hill and Mitchell (boots, shoes, and hats, 324 Main St.) in 1880 and 1881 and as a cook in 1882.


Howard’s election to the Tennessee General Assembly

The emergence of Leon Howard onto the Shelby County political scene in 1882 seems to have been as much of a surprise to Memphis voters as it still is to historians. Howard’s name appeared on the November ballot as a “low-tax” Republican candidate, facing three other African American contenders who were much better known in Memphis politics: Thomas F. Cassels, Isham (Isaac) F. Norris, and William F. Price. Norris and Price had agreed to run as fusionist Democrats in a deal that would ensure their support of Governor William B. Bate and Senator Isham G. Harris. If successful, the fusion movement, brainchild of attorney Edward Shaw, Shelby County’s most powerful black political leader, would guarantee African Americans a forceful and enduring voice in Southern politics. Shaw complained that the Republican party had not adequately improved conditions for his people and no longer deserved their support. He hand-picked his candidates: Norris, a wealthy businessman (wood & coal, “staple and fancy groceries,” feed, and tobacco) had already served one term (1881-1882) in the Tennessee House; Price was a highly respected farmer from Bartlett. Despite a zealous campaign by the editorial staff of the Memphis Daily Appeal to convince white Democratic voters to support Norris and Price, the only black elected to represent Shelby County in the 43rd General Assembly was Leon Howard, who had remained with the Republican party. All four black representatives in the General Assembly that term were Republicans from counties in southwestern Tennessee: Howard from Shelby County, Boyd from Tipton (in his second term), McElwee from Haywood, and Rivers from Fayette.

The Memphis Public Ledger offered faint praise to Howard in an article published right after the election: “It appears oddly enough that two low-tax Republicans are elected to the Legislature, instead of Norris and Price, the colored Democratic nominees. Dr. Ramsey voted against the 100-3 and 60-6 bills, and was highly commended for his moral courage and regard for the rights of the people at the time. Howard, the colored low-tax Republican, is spoken of as a very respectable representative of his race. So it is not so bad after all, although we regret the defeat of Norris and Price. These men, however, will have a showing some other way.”

Howard listed his occupation as “restauratuer” [sic] in the information he provided to the legislative clerk. (The 1882 Memphis city directory said he was a cook.) He also stated that he was 33 at the time of his election, born in Marshall County, Mississippi (census records uniformly say he was born in Tennessee, and his mother in North Carolina), single, and a member of the Congregational church. The only legislative committee he served on was Military Affairs; Samuel McElwee served on the same committee.

Leon Howard introduced five bills during his term. The first, offered very early in the session (January 5, 1883), was to repeal Chapter 130 of the Tennessee Code, the state’s first Jim Crow law, permitting discrimination in public transportation and facilities. Black legislators attempted to repeal at least some portion of Chapter 130 in nearly every session (Sykes, 1881; Norris, 1882; Howard, 1883; and Hodge, 1885). After Howard’s bill was tabled on February 13, he introduced a modified version of the same bill on February 20, attempting to repeal only the portions of Chapter 130 referring to common carriers and permitting suits against them. That bill was sent to the Judiciary Committee, where it languished.

Howard offered three other bills that black legislators in other sessions had also attempted to enact. The first, to prohibit extramarital sex between white men and black women, echoed a bill offered by Thomas F. Cassels in 1881. The second, to appoint an Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction who would oversee black schools, would be introduced again by Greene Evans in 1885, at the request of the governor. Howard’s third bill, to require compulsory school attendance of Shelby County children between the ages of 8 and 12 for at least 12 weeks per year, would be reissued in a slightly different form by William A. Feilds in 1885. Although virtually every one of Howard’s bills would eventually become law in some form, during his term in the Legislature all of them disappeared into the committee system, where they failed to receive any support.


Marriage to Estella Bryand, working life, and move to California

In 1883, the same year Howard both married Estella Bryand and served as a state legislator, the city directory listed him as a partner in a firm operating a boarding house, Odeneal & Howard; in 1884 he was again listed as a laborer. There are no directory entries in 1885 or 1886, when the family may have lived for a time in Washington, D.C. [A December 22, 1883, news article in the Washington, D. C., Evening Star mentions the appointment of a Leon Howard as a laborer by the officers of the House of Representatives, along with a page and a messenger. Perhaps a Tennessee House member had submitted Howard’s name for that position.] The family returned fairly soon to Memphis, where Leon worked as a clerk (1887), a porter at the Gayoso Hotel (1888), and a janitor at the Custom House (1889-1892). It is important to understand that janitorial positions were highly regarded among 19th century African Americans – such jobs, particularly in important government or civic buildings, were well paid and considered highly desirable. A janitor was responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of a major building, was trusted to move about freely in high-security areas, and was often placed in a position of supervising other workers.

At some point the family decided to move west, and they apparently struck out for California in 1893 or 1894 – once again we are reminded how much information was lost with the 1890 census – and Leon’s name appears in Bakersfield voter registers in 1894 and 1896. By the time of the 1900 census, Leon (50), married since 1883, and his family were well established in Bakersfield, Kern County, California, where he was once again working as a janitor and had earned enough money to buy the house they lived in at 1020 I Street. His wife, Estella [son Wilbur’s death record says her maiden name was Bryand], was 35, born in Tennessee, and had given birth to five children, all currently living with them: Leon S. (16, born in Tennessee), Blakemore (15, born in the District of Columbia), Henry B. (11, born in Tennessee), Annie P. (9, born in Tennessee), and Wilbur Stanley (6, born in Colorado). There is no information about whether the family merely passed through Colorado on their way to California, or whether they actually settled there for a time.


After Leon Howard died in 1912, his widow and children moved to Oakland, California. He is the only member of his family buried in Bakersfield. (Photo by Dean Hirst)

Later years

In 1902 Leon Jr., then 17 or 18, was mentioned in an article on the sports page of the local newspaper. His coach, speaking of an approaching interscholastic track meet, wrote, “Leon Howard and Hugh Allen are about neck and neck in the 440-yard run. They both have plenty of grit and ought to make a fine showing.” The 1910 census showed the Howard family living in a house they owned free and clear at 805 8th Street, Bakersfield, and the City Directory for that year indicated their household owned a telephone. Interestingly, the census listed the entire family as white. [The 1894 Kern County voter registration rolls described Leon as 45 years old; five feet, five and one-quarter inches tall; with a light complexion, blue eyes, and light-colored hair.] Married to Leon for 26 years, Estella, 45, had given birth to one more child after the move to California – Irma, now a 9-year-old school girl. Leon Jr., 25, was a concrete worker for city buildings, although by 1912 he was a secretary for the Western Grocery Company; Annie, 19, had a job as a stenographer in a local department store; and Wilbur, 16, worked as a barber in a “city shop,” a profession he would continue for many years, although by 1930 he was selling insurance. Leon’s brother Jeptha also lived in Bakersfield with his family and worked as a janitor at the Bank of Bakersfield, but his name does not appear after 1910. There was a 17-year-old boy named Leonidas G. Howard, known as “Lon,” in another Howard family in Bakersfield. His father, George C. Howard (53), was born in Tennessee in 1857 – early records indicate that although George was not a brother, he may have been a cousin.

California death records show that Leon Howard died in Kern County on March 8, 1912, at the age of 63. He was laid to rest in Union Cemetery, Bakersfield, in the Haven of Rest plot, number 180-12. After 1912 Estella had her own directory entry, in which she was always identified as “wid Leon.” Of the children, only Leon S. and Wilbur ever had individual entries in the Bakersfield directory. No information about Blakemore and Henry has come to light after the 1900 census.

According to Wilbur’s 1917 draft registration card, he was working by that time as a barber in Oakland, California, and was partly responsible for the support of his mother. He did serve as a private in the U.S. Army during World War I. Three years later, the 1920 census showed Estella to be renting a house in Oakland, with her children Erma (18, still in school) and Wilbur (26, still working as a barber) living with her. She may have been buried in Oakland – although Leon’s grave is marked with a double stone, his is the only name carved into it. Wilbur, an Army veteran, is buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, California.        KBL 11/15/2012

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Cartwright, Joseph H. The Triumph of Jim Crow: Tennessee Race Relations in the 1880s. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.
“Coach Birch Writes about the High School Athletes,” Bakersfield Morning Echo, February 7, 1902, p. 16.
Hirst, Dean. Union Cemetery, Bakersfield, California. June 7, 2012.
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