Did you know that the first African-American Tennessee state legislator was from Rutherford County?
Many may not be aware of the name Sampson Keeble. Keeble was a significant trailblazer who paved the way for African-Americans in politics in the great state of Tennessee.
Sampson Keeble was born in the Old Jefferson Community- which was the first county seat of Rutherford County– way back in the day. The town received notoriety as the town that was told it would flood – but it never did.
Old Jefferson Community
The first Rutherford County seat and literally taken off the map 50 years ago.
According to the date on Keeble’s tombstone in Nashville’s Greenwood Cemetery, Keeble was born in 1833 at Stoney Lonesome Plantation in the Old Jefferson Community (East of Smyrna) in Rutherford County, Tennessee, to Sampson W. and Nancy (or Mary) Keeble.
Their slave-owner’s father, Walter “Blackhead” Keeble, had stipulated in his 1816 will that his slaves were to be cared for, educated, and freed as soon as the law would allow, and that any of his heirs who did not agree to those requisites would inherit nothing – land, slaves, nor money. When Walter died, the inventory for his 1844 will listed among his slaves 11-year-old Sampson and 16-year-old Marshall (perhaps the father or grandfather of evangelist Marshall Keeble, 1878-1968). The two youngsters were inherited by Walter’s son, Horace Pinkney Keeble, a Rutherford County attorney. (At least one period newspaper named Horace’s brother Edwin A. Keeble as Sampson Keeble’s owner, but there is substantial evidence that Sampson was, in fact, part of H. P.’s household.) Also listed among Walter Keeble’s slaves, who were grouped by family, were Sampson’s mother, called Nancy Polly (40) to distinguish her from another woman named Nancy Betty (39); Sampson’s sisters Elisa Jane, 9 [the “Eliza A.” on Nancy’s tombstone], and Catherine, 2 [“Kitty”]; and brother George Lent, 6 [“Ceorce L”]; the tombstone appears to name one more child, with a name ending in “y.” That could be Joicy (six months old at the time of the inventory) or Billy Buck (age not given), both of whose names are listed near those of the Keeble family on the inventory sheet. There is no evidence that Pastor Marshall Keeble was related to this family, other than to share their slave owner’s surname.
When Walter Keeble died, Sampson Keeble along with Walter Keeble’s children and grandchildren received inheritances.
When Sampson Keeble was 18 years old, he took a job as “roller boy” on the Rutherford Telegraph in Murfreesboro. By 1854 Keeble was working as pressman for both the Telegraph and the Murfreesboro News.
He may well have learned the trade under H.P. and Edwin Keeble, who owned the Murfreesboro Monitor newspaper.
Walter Keeble Sr. and son Walter Jr. built this home in 1811. The home was passed to his daughter and husband, Dr. George W. Thompson and Mary Eliza Keeble Thompson in 1844. Thomas E. McCullough purchased the home in 1887 and resided there till 1928 when James Peyton Smith purchased the home.
A man of many attributes Sampson Keeble was a barber, businessman and civic leader and became the first African-American to serve in the 38th Tennessee General Assembly from 1873-1875 and with an ironic twist served in the Confederate Army and served as a Republican in the Tennessee state legislature.
Sampson Keeble was believed to be among the wealthiest blacks in the city of Nashville at that time. The love of politics ignited when he worked for some time as a custodian in a law office, where he became interested in studying law.
The attorneys in that practice, intrigued by his enthusiasm and whit became supportive of his efforts and helped prepare him to eventually take the bar exam. Keeble’s legal training would later allow him to qualify for election as a Davidson County magistrate.
He worked in a barbershop on Cedar Street (today’s Charlotte Avenue) and took various part-time jobs to support himself and his family. Sampson eventually established the Rock City Barber Shop and managed it for about 20 years.
Sampson Keeble’s journey becoming a legislator started off as a rocky adventure. He submitted his name as a Republican nominee for a seat in the General Assembly in July 1869 but lost the nomination to J.H. Sumner. This loss did not stop his determination and passion to leave an impact.
He remained active in politics, and his intelligence and good nature won him many friends and supporters. Unlike most other counties that elected black politicians during the next decade or so, Davidson County continued to retain a majority of white voters.
On 224 North Walnut Street in Murfreesboro sits one of the most prominent and historical buildings owned by the wealthy Keeble family. Sadly this building (the former site of The Daily News Journal) is set to be demolished within the next several weeks.
The house was originally built for Edwin Keeble, who owned the newspaper company that Sampson Keeble worked for as a young boy. Not only was Edwin Keeble a business owner, he served in the Tennessee General Assembly and as speaker of the House.
It is evident that the leadership passed from Walter Keeble down to his siblings, children and servants continued to change the dynamics and progression in Nashville. There is no doubt in my mind that young Sampson Keeble viewed Edwin Keeble as a mentor who noticed Sampson’s leadership potential.
This Tennessee Historical Commission marker commemorates the service of Sampson W. Keeble, “the first African-American to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly.” It stands near the intersection of Broadway and 2nd Avenue in downtown Nashville. (photo by Kathy Lauder)
(Editor’s Note: I have seen an effort from a few groups and even the media to try to rewrite, distort and even censor our rich Rutherford and Tennessee history. Tennessee’s tourism industry is a $21 Billion industry that creates much need jobs and provides greatly needed tax revenue to help provide for roads, bridges, government services, schools and even– teacher raises. Many of those tourist are visiting our state and county due to our rich history. Whether its visiting the Stones River National Battlefield Oaklands Manor, Sam Davis Home Plantation and more
The extraordinary life of Sampson Keeble, his rise form being born to slaves, receiving an inheritance from the Keeble family patriarch and having white mentors who encouraged Keeble should be remembered. Yes, slavery was wrong–but the story of Keeble should be taught in our schools and especially during Black History Month– ironically– it’s not. I’m curious why? If you would like to learn more or volunteer in Rutherford County history below are a few contacts.
*Stones River National Battlefield (615) 893-9501
*Rutherford County Historical Society, RutherfordCountyTnHistory.org 615-900-4063
*African-American Heritage Society of Rutherford County. Mary Watkins 615-890-0837
*Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp #33 Murfreesboro www.Tennessee-SCV.org