One of the state’s most influential African American men of the 1880s, Samuel A. McElwee had to struggle to achieve a college education and law degree, but nonetheless served his race for three terms in the Tennessee General Assembly (1882-88), where he was recognized as a “magnetic speaker, forcible debater, and indefatigable worker.” (1) He was born into slavery in Madison County, but, following emancipation, McElwee’s father, Robert McElwee, the son of a white man, moved his family to Haywood County, where Samuel attended freedmen’s schools for a few months each year. In addition to his schooling, McElwee was strongly influenced by the words of Frederick Douglass, which he read in the latter’s newspaper, the National Era.
In 1875 McElwee attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where he met his school expenses by doing menial work. After a year, he returned to the South, and for the next three years he taught school and peddled books, Bibles, and patent medicine. The desire for more education remained uppermost in his mind, and he continued to study Latin, German, and algebra with a white Vanderbilt student who tutored him twice a week. In 1878 McElwee enrolled at Fisk University after the tutor made university officials aware of his industrious student. He graduated in 1883, opened a store in Haywood County, and began reading law on his own. In 1884 he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, where a black newspaper favorably noted his self-confidence and drive. Following the death of his wife in 1885, McElwee placed his two small children with his wife’s parents and entered Central Tennessee College in Nashville; he received a law degree in 1886.
At the same time he was pursuing his education, McElwee also served two terms in the Tennessee General Assembly. During his first legislative session, McElwee introduced legislation to increase the appropriation for the education of black teachers. His appeal for support from white legislators rested on the foundation of African- American contributions to the history of the state and their opportunities in the future progress of the “New South.” Although McElwee failed to achieve his goal of adequate educational funding, his legislative skill and speaking ability soon earned respect from his assembly colleagues.
In 1885 McElwee received the Republican nomination for Speaker of the House, an honorary gesture in view of the Democratic domination of the House. As his name was placed in nomination, McElwee was endorsed as the equal of any House member. The nominee received thirty-two votes; the next year he was elected temporary chairman of the Republican gubernatorial convention. Soon McElwee’s reputation extended beyond the borders of Tennessee. Booker T. Washington, recognizing both his accomplishments and oratorical skills, invited him to be a commencement speaker at the 1887 graduation of Tuskegee Institute.
In 1887, during his third term, McElwee lectured the House on race relations in a powerful speech delivered in the wake of the horrific lynching of a black woman in West Tennessee. He had proposed a bill that would make sheriffs responsible for prisoners who “escaped” as a deterrent to the common excuse for allowing mobs to “capture” escapees and lynch them. As the legislators listened, McElwee thundered his protest and demanded reform. “I stand here today and enter my most solemn protest against mob violence in Tennessee,” he intoned. “Great God, when will this Nation treat the Negro as an American citizen? . . . 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.” (2) Despite his emotional plea, the bill was tabled by a vote of forty-one to thirty-six.
McElwee served during the era when the restrictive racial legislation known as “Jim Crow” law was passed. As a result, McElwee and his black colleagues are sometimes accused of “selling out.” However, with other black legislators, he fought against overwhelming odds to introduce bills to protect laborers, improve education, and provide for the civil rights of African Americans.
Voting fraud and intimidation cost McElwee reelection in 1887, and he left Haywood County under threat to his life. Settling in Nashville, he married Georgia Shelton. In 1888 his last foray into political life came when he attended the Republican National Convention and made an unsuccessful attempt to obtain an appointment as minister to Haiti. He largely withdrew from public life after 1890 although he continued to give well-received speeches at black colleges and events, and he edited a newspaper. In 1901 McElwee moved his wife and daughters to a white neighborhood in Chicago, where he developed a lucrative law practice, specializing in suits against streetcar companies. He died in October 1914.
Richard A. Couto, Lifting the Veil: A Political History of Struggles for Emancipation (1993)