First Black Statesmen: Tennessee's Self-Made Men

The Citizenship Project  begins with a half hour documentary: First Black Statesmen: Tennessee's Self-Made Men. At the end of the Civil War, after ratification of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, there was a relatively brief fifteen year period where voters elected and the Tennessee Legislature seated African-American legislators. The first was Sampson Keeble in 1873, and he was followed by a dozen more after him. These men were former slaves, businessmen, teachers, lawyers and farmers from Davidson, Tipton, Shelby, Fayette and other counties around the state. However, they struggled and sometimes lost against the forces opposing them both in the legislature and in their hometowns. Those forces used black codes, vote suppression, ballot rigging, threats and violence against them. In more than one case, the legislator fled the state for safety. In 1888, the last of the elected black legislators left office. One more was elected in 1896, reportedly "by the largest vote for any legislative candidate" from that county, but he was denied his seat by the Legislature. The Tennessee Legislature would remain an all-white body from 1888 until 1964.

The Citizenship Project

In school, we are taught that the slaves were freed after the Civil War and were made full citizens of the U.S. We’re also taught that citizenship involves certain rights and duties, such as the right to vote, to hold elected office, to work, to own property, to have equal protection under the law and to have a trial by a jury of your peers, and that the duties of citizenship include following the law, paying taxes and serving in the military. The reality for many citizens is that the rights of citizenship are not automatically granted without a fight, and that battle that can take decades or more. The history of our country for the one hundred years after the Civil War and into the 20thcentury holds many of these battles, the stories of which are largely unknown. Nashville Public Television will tell these stories through The Citizenship Project.