State Reps. Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna), Karen Camper (D-Shelby County) and John DeBerry (D-Memphis) stand by a bust of Sampson Keeble, Tennessee’s first black legislator, which graces the entrance to the Tennessee House Chambers.
Rutherford County produced Tennessee’s first black legislator, and that fact was a complete surprise to current state Rep. Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna), who happened upon this bit of local history while touring the Stones River National Battlefield.
Sparks said he became interested in the story of Sampson W. Keeble Jr. after reading portions of a historical display during the opening of the park’s new entrance on Thompson Lane, and he was shocked to learn that he currently represents the area where Keeble was born, raised a family, and ran a successful business prior to his election to the Tennessee General Assembly in 1872.
“What a great story of hardship and triumph here in Rutherford County,” Sparks said. “We should be proud of this man, and citizens of this county need to learn of his contribution to our history.
“I mean, this is what Black History Month is all about,” he added.
Keeble was born into slavery on a Rutherford County plantation in 1833, to parents Sampson W. Sr. and Nancy Keeble.
It was illegal at that time for slaves to be married, and they often took the names of their owners, especially when they considered owners kind or influential.
Keeble’s father chose the name of his owner, H.P. Keeble, a prominent planter with large tracts of land in what is now called Old Jefferson, the county’s original settlement, which lies just east of present-day Smyrna on the Stones River.
Keeble most likely did not receive any formal education, and in 1851, he took a job as a “roller boy” at the Rutherford Telegraph in Murfreesboro, rolling ink onto the plates of the printing press for each single copy printed.
It was a hot, messy and laborious task, but he must have distinguished himself because he was promoted to the job of pressman for both the Telegraph and the Murfreesboro News in 1854.
Keeble held this job until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 when he became a soldier, a Confederate soldier.
After the war, he settled in Davidson County, worked as a grocer for some time, and later established the Rock City Barber Shop on Cedar Street, which he operated for nearly 20 years.
He was a board member of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company, a financial organization created by the U.S. government to encourage economic development among freed slaves, and served as treasurer of the Colored Agricultural and Mechanical Association.
According to the 1870 U.S. Census, his real estate holdings grew to a value of $4,000, quite a sizable sum at that time.
With the enfranchisement of freed slaves who chose the Republican Party of President Abraham Lincoln, and the disenfranchisement of former Confederates who were mostly Democrats, the presidential election of 1872 promised to be a landslide for Republican and former Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the South.
These favorable political winds were not lost on Keeble, who decided to campaign for a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives and rode Grant’s coattails to victory.
He was sworn in as Tennessee’s first black legislator when the General Assembly convened on Jan. 6, 1873, sponsoring legislation amending Nashville’s charter to allow blacks the right to own businesses downtown, to provide protection for wage earners and to appropriate state funds for the Tennessee Manual Labor University.
None of his initiatives gained the required votes for passage, and he was defeated for re-election after a single two-year term.
Keeble was then elected a magistrate in the Davidson County Court by a close margin of 1,041-1,022 over opponent James W. Ready, who contested the results.
A recount gave Ready the edge, but the Davidson County sheriff awarded Keeble a commission before his election could be overturned and a subsequent challenge in Davidson County Court proved fruitless when Judge John C. Ferris ruled that the commission could not be overturned once it was granted.
Keeble served as magistrate from 1877 to 1882, and his office was the site of a protest meeting of the Journeyman Barbers, a union of barbers who initiated a strike for higher wages and more equitable working conditions in 1877.
He ran again for the General Assembly in 1878 but was defeated by a Greenback Party candidate, primarily because Democrats were restoring their political supremacy in Nashville and Davidson County, and because racial violence and poll taxes were beginning to intimidate black voters.
Keeble died in 1887 and is buried with his daughter and son-in-law, Jeannette Keeble and Benjamin F. Cox, in Greenwood Cemetery on Elm Hill Pike in Nashville.
A one-and-one-half size bronze bust of Keeble now graces the entrance of the Tennessee House Chambers in the State Capitol.
The imposing bust was unveiled during a March 2010 ceremony with Keeble’s proud descendants in attendance.
His most famous descendant is actress Vanessa Williams.
Sparks said he feels a connection with Keeble because he strives even today to solve many of the same problems that freed slaves faced during Reconstruction, with modest success.
“A whopping 70 percent fatherless rate, high dropout rate, and astronomic incarceration rates in the black community – these issues are never even discussed, and if they are, I haven’t heard of it,” he said. “These problems affect white, black, and even Hispanic citizens, as well as modern problems such broken homes, drugs, and human trafficking – we at least need an open discussion about these serious issues.”
During a recent WGNS Radio broadcast, Sparks and state Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) discussed the importance of Keeble’s story and the purpose of Black History Month.
“Black History Month is a time to teach young people about trailblazers like Sampson Keeble, to teach them about how it used to be and how far we’ve come,” Deberry said. “I mean, these young folks today barely even know what it was like without color TV or power locks in cars, let alone the very real and important challenges that African-Americans had to overcome to get us where we are today.
“And that is what Black History Month is all about,” he added emphatically.