Nashville & Middle Tennessee (TN) Information : SampsonWKeeble

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Sampson W. Keeble:
Tennessee's First African American State Legislator

by Kathy B. Lauder

New_KeebleA dynamic, hard-working member of the Republican Party, Nashville barber Sampson W. Keeble became the first African American to serve in the Tennessee legislature when he was elected to represent Davidson County in the 38th Tennessee General Assembly, 1873-1874.

According to the inscription on his tombstone in Nashville’s Greenwood Cemetery, Keeble was born in 1833 in Rutherford County, Tennessee.  His parents were Sampson W. and Nancy (or Mary) Keeble, who were the slaves of H. P. Keeble, a Rutherford County attorney.

Keeble seems to have gained considerable independence early in his life.    The Nashville Union and American (6 Dec 1872) stated that in 1851, at 18 years of age, he took a job as “roller boy” on the Rutherford Telegraph in Murfreesboro; by 1854 he was working as pressman for both the Telegraph and the Murfreesboro News, jobs he held until the beginning of the Civil War, during most of which, according to another story in the Union and American (7 Nov 1872), he fought in the Confederate lines.  By 1866 Nashville city directories show that he had settled in Davidson County, where he worked for some time as a grocer and took other part-time jobs to support himself; he later established the Rock City Barber Shop on Cedar Street and ran it for about 20 years. At that time, of course, barber shops were segregated: Keeble worked with other Negro barbers, cutting the hair of white customers.  During the same period he served as a member of the advisory board of the Freedmen's Savings and Trust Company Bank and as treasurer of the board of directors of the Colored Agricultural and Mechanical Association.  The 1870 Census showed “Keebles,” at age 38, to be a barber with real estate holdings of $4,000.  Also living in the household at that time was Eliza Keebles, 35, whose occupation was identified as “keeping house.”   From the names of children listed on Nancy Keeble’s tombstone in Mt. Ararat Cemetery, it appears that Eliza was Sampson’s younger sister.  (Although much of that tombstone inscription is illegible, the children’s names listed there are S. W., Eliza A., George L., and Kitty.)  Others in his 1870 household were Mary (age 65, probably his mother Nancy); children Hattie (8) and Samuel (4), whose parents were not identified; Kate Beckwith (22), a cousin; and Harriet Keeble (30).

In November 1872, riding the coat-tails of a sizeable popular vote for President Grant, Sampson W. Keeble narrowly won election as Republican representative of Davidson County to the 38th Tennessee General Assembly, which convened on January 6, 1873.  Keeble was the first African American to serve as a member of the state legislature . . . and the last for some time – it would be eight years before another African American member was elected.  

During his term in the legislature, Keeble introduced several bills: one would amend Nashville’s charter to allow African Americans to operate businesses downtown; a second would provide protection for wage earners (several of the later black legislators followed his lead in this area, introducing similar bills); and still another would appropriate state funds to help support the Tennessee Manual Labor University.  Not one of Keeble’s bills received sufficient votes to pass into law.

Keeble served only a single two-year term in the General Assembly.  According to family members, at some point during his time in Nashville, he attended Fisk University briefly, although university records do not have a record of his enrollment there. He also worked as a custodian at a law firm.  The attorneys in that practice, impressed by his enthusiasm for learning, supported him in reading the law.  He was eventually able to pass the Tennessee bar, which in those days involved assessment and approval by a handful of legal professionals.

historical_markerAs a result of his public service, Keeble was well known within the African American community.  He was elected a magistrate in the Davidson County Court, serving from 1877 to 1882.  His 1041-1022 victory was contested by his opponent, James W. Ready, and a re-count gave Ready a majority; however, the sheriff had already awarded Keeble the election and issued him a commission.  When Ready challenged Keeble’s election in county court, Judge John C. Ferris ruled that the commission could not be set aside once it was granted, so Keeble retained the seat.  In 1877 Keeble’s office was the site of a protest meeting of  journeymen barbers, who initiated a strike for higher wages and more equitable working conditions.

Sampson Keeble ran again for the General Assembly in 1878 but was defeated by a Greenback party candidate, perhaps in part because Democrats were gaining back the political supremacy in Nashville and Davidson County which they had lost during Reconstruction, but perhaps also because racial violence and poll taxes were beginning to intimidate black voters from taking part in elections. 

By the time of the 1880 Census Sampson, now in his late 40s, was married to Rebecca Cantrell Gordon, a 29-year-old teacher, who had been educated in New York; they were the parents of three-year-old “Jennie” (Jeannette, who would later marry Benjamin F. Cox, head of Avery Normal Institute in Charleston C) and one-year-old “S.W.” (Sampson W., Jr.)  These were the only Keeble children who survived to adulthood.  Several others, including a set of twins, died in infancy.  In the 1910 Census, Rebecca states that she had two children living of the six to whom she had given birth.  Also living in the Keeble household in 1880 were Sampson’s widowed mother, Nancy Keeble (78), and two teenagers, Hattie M. Beckwith (18) and Maggie K. Smith (17), identified as nieces, who were attending school in Nashville.

Keeble’s second wife Rebecca was the natural daughter of her mother’s slave-owner and was raised in her father’s household, with light duties as a household servant – a “foot slave” – and it is quite possible that she was educated along with the other children of the household.  Delighted by this lovely and clever little girl, her father sent her to live with relatives in Staten Island, New York, and she received an education there that included lessons in music and Latin.  After some time there, she returned to Nashville.  Her readjustment to life in the South was difficult, but she was a woman of strong character, and she soon began to teach other African Americans, both children and adults, to read and write.  Even after the Civil War, many people opposed the idea of educating blacks, and there were attempts to find and close black schools, which were most often make-shift workshops held in churches and private residences.  Rebecca continued to teach, in spite of threats against her safety, moving from place to place to work with her students.  Keeble descendants believe that Rebecca may even have taught Sampson to read, although it is likely, because of the publishing jobs he held with Rutherford county newspapers and his position with the Nashville law firm, that he learned to read much earlier.  Both he and Rebecca were avid readers and particularly loved reading the Bible.  In her later years, even after she became blind, Rebecca continued to help students with their recitations and music lessons.

The last year Keeble’s name appears in the Nashville City Directory is 1886, when he is listed as a teacher.  He died in 1887, when his children were quite young.  He is buried with his daughter and son-in-law, Jeannette Keeble and Benjamin F. Cox, in Greenwood Cemetery on Elm Hill Pike in Nashville.  The grave is on a piece of land that runs parallel to Spence Lane, directly across from the final resting places of publisher R. H. Boyd and the Honorable James C. Napier, Nashville’s first African American city councilman and Register of the U.S. Treasury under President William H. Taft.  In the year 2010 the Legislative Black Caucus will place a bust honoring Sampson W. Keeble outside the House of Representatives in the Tennessee State Capitol.   (2009)


Native Tennessean and internationally acclaimed sculptor Roy W. Butler was selected by a committee of the Tennessee Arts Commission from a nationwide artist call, to create the 1.5-times-life-size bronze sculpture of Representative Keeble.  Mr. Butler is renowned for creating high-realism sculpture: Keeble has been represented with exceptional skin and hair detailing, as well as circa 1873, historically accurate jacket lapel widths, vest texture, bowtie, and buttons.
 The photograph of the Sampson Keeble bust after its installation near the House Chamber in the Tennessee State Capitol was taken by sculptor Roy W. Butler. The sculpture will be unveiled at the Capitol in early spring 2010.
  The Keeble historical marker on lower Broadway, Nashville, was photographed by Kathy Lauder.

For more information about Tennessee's African American legislators of the 19th Century, go to

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This page has 3 comments.

Jim Jones (January 27, 2010 2:54 PM)
Jim Jones (February 3, 2010 8:59 AM)
This kind of thing has been a long time coming. Congratulations to Kathy B. Lauder.
Jim Jones (February 16, 2010 4:01 PM)
Ring dang, ring dang, ring dang, do
I don't know what it looks like or what it can do
But I got to keep on lookin for a ring dang do!
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