William F. Yardley, an influential and powerful advocate for the legal rights of blacks, was the first African American to run for governor of Tennessee. Yardley was born in 1844, the child of a white mother and a black father and, therefore, legally free. He was literally left on the Knoxville doorstep of the white Yardley family, who took him in and gave him his name. Bound out to learn a trade, he attended school under the direction of an Episcopal minister. In 1869 he was teaching black children at the Ebenezer School and reading law with a white lawyer. By 1872 he had passed the bar exam and was licensed to practice. Apparently the first African American lawyer in Knoxville, he handled primarily criminal cases for black clients. In 1870 he married Elizabeth Stone, who was part Native American, and they had four children.
Active in Republican politics, he was elected Knoxville city alderman in 1872 and served on the Knox County Court from 1876 to 1882. When the Republican Party declined to nominate a candidate for governor in 1876, Yardley stepped forward as an Independent and canvassed the state with two other white candidates. He spoke boldly and eloquently against the constitutional bans on interracial marriage and interracial schooling. Although he lost the gubernatorial race, thereafter Knoxvillians referred to him as either “Squire Yardley” or “Governor Yardley.”
Yardley was possibly the first African American lawyer to take a case to the State Supreme Court (Williams, 1883). In 1885, in Eaton, he argued against requiring jail inmates to “work off” the costs of state prosecution, a practice that made poor inmates near-slaves. He lost the case, but the practice was ultimately abolished. Yardley served as cocounsel in one of Knoxville’s most important criminal cases, the two murder trials (1919, 1921) of a black man who was convicted of shooting a white woman after climbing through her bedroom window. The initial incident precipitated the Knoxville race riot of 1919. Although his client, Maurice Mays, was found guilty in both trials and executed for the crime, most modern scholars conclude that Mays was wrongfully convicted.
In addition to his legal and political career, Yardley represented the Continental Insurance Company of New York and was a member of Knoxville’s first fire department, serving as the second assistant fire chief, 1876-77. In 1878 Yardley was the publisher and editor of Knoxville’s first black newspaper, the Knoxville Examiner. In 1882 he organized and published another newspaper, the Knoxville Bulletin.
Wearing a Prince Albert coat and derby, Yardley remained a leading Knoxvillian for decades, hosting such dignitaries as Frederick Douglass, who called him “one of the most remarkable men that I have met.” (1) William F. Yardley died on May 20, 1924.