“I stand here today and wave the flag of truce between the races and demand a reformation in southern society.” - Samuel A. McElwee, February 23, 1887
The first African slaves were shipped to America by European colonists long before the arrival of the Mayflower. Although protests against slavery emerged before 1700, the buying, selling, and keeping of slaves became part of daily life in the colonies, both north and south. Congress declared the importation of slaves illegal in 1808, but slave ships continued to deliver their wretched cargo to American shores until 1859. As various Northern states declared slavery illegal, negotiating a balance between slave states and free states required the full attention of several presidential administrations. When gathering tensions led irrevocably to the devastating War between the States, the nation was forced to face the reality that the patterns of its daily life would be forever altered. Although African slaves had been denied the rights of citizenship, the Civil War changed all the rules. The Thirteenth Amendment (ratified December 1865) freed the slaves; the Fourteenth (July 1868), made them citizens; and the Fifteenth (February 1870) gave them – the men, at least – the right to vote and to take part in the affairs of government.
Two and a half years after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, in November 1872, Tennessee voters elected their first African American representative to the General Assembly. The achievements of the fourteen black men, some of them former slaves, who served as Tennessee legislators before 1900 represent an important part of state history. However, after the end of the 45th General Assembly in March of 1887, Tennessee would not seat another African American in its legislature until 1965. It is imperative that readers remain aware of the generations of racial violence, supported by the legislative enactment of restrictive “Black Codes,” which silenced the political voices of millions of black Americans for decades. It took further civil strife in the 1950s and 1960s to restore those important voices to the national dialogue.