By Mike Sparks
I bet you didn’t know that the first African American Tennessee State Legislator was from Rutherford County?
In the annals of history, the name Sampson Keeble may not immediately ring a bell. Yet, this remarkable individual holds a unique place in the realm of Tennessee politics—as he defied the odds of his time to become the first African American Tennessee State Legislator, hailing from Rutherford County. Sampson Keeble was a trailblazer who paved the way for generations of African Americans in the realm of politics in the great state of Tennessee.
The Legacy of Walter Keeble
Sampson Keeble’s journey begins in a household owned by Walter “Blackhead” Keeble, a white slave owner in the once Old Jefferson Community, who stands apart from the grim chapters of American slavery due to his extraordinary compassion and respect for his servants. Walter Keeble’s 1816 will carried a profound message of humanity – he stipulated that his “servants” were to be cared for, educated, and freed as soon as the law allowed. Those who disagreed with this humane directive would receive nothing, neither land, slaves—nor money.
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When Walter Keeble passed away, Sampson Keeble, along with Walter’s children and grandchildren, inherited a legacy of fairness and compassion. At the age of 18, Sampson Keeble embarked on his career as a “roller boy” for the Rutherford Telegraph in Murfreesboro, ultimately working as a pressman for both the Telegraph and the Murfreesboro News by 1854. It is believed that he honed his skills under the tutelage of H. P. and Edwin Keeble, owners of the Murfreesboro Monitor newspaper.
A Multifaceted Life
Sampson Keeble was a man of many talents. Alongside his career as a roller boy, but as a barber, businessman, soldier and civic leader. This Renaissance man made history as he became the first African American to serve in the 38th Tennessee General Assembly from 1873 to 1875. Interestingly, his journey took an ironic twist as he had served both in the Confederate Army and later as a Republican legislator.
Keeble Sampson was not just a legislator; he was also one of the wealthiest African Americans in Nashville during his time. His interest in politics ignited during his custodial work in a law office, where he developed a passion for studying law. Encouraged by the attorneys in the practice, he eventually took the bar exam, paving the way for him to qualify for election as a Davidson County magistrate.
The Rock City Barber Shop
As Sampson Keeble worked tirelessly to support his family, he managed to establish the Rock City Barber Shop, a successful venture he ran for approximately two decades. His determination, work ethic, and entrepreneurial spirit were evident in every aspect of his life.
The Rocky Road to Politics
Sampson Keeble’s path to politics was not without its challenges. In 1869, he faced a setback when he lost the Republican nomination for a seat in the General Assembly to J. H. Sumner. However, his determination remained unwavering, and his reputation for intelligence and good nature earned him a growing circle of friends and supporters.
The Keeble Legacy
The legacy of the Keeble family extended beyond Sampson’s remarkable journey. The historical significance of 224 N. Walnut St. in Murfreesboro, once owned by the prosperous Keeble family—cannot be overstated. This historic building, originally constructed for Edwin Keeble, who owned the newspaper company where Sampson Keeble began his career, sadly, was torn down to make room for a new parking garage for the county’s judicial building.
It is evident that leadership and mentorship passed down from Walter Keeble to his siblings, children, and even his servants who would help to shape the future of both Nashville and Murfreesboro
A Call for Preservation
In conclusion, my hope is that the narrative of Sampson Keeble, a Rutherford County trailblazer will become more visible in history of Tennessee politics. The task calls for collaboration, drawing upon the expertise of Middle Tennessee State University, including esteemed historians such as Dr. Carroll Van West, the Director of the Center for Historic Preservation at MTSU and Tennessee’s State Historian, as well as the invaluable contributions of Rutherford County historian Greg Tucker, historians Marty Luffman, Mary Watkins, Katie Wilson, Steve Murphree, and countless others.
Rutherford County is on a much improved course and has shown commitment to preserving the entirety of its history—the uplifting moments, the challenging periods, and yes, even the less flattering chapters. Case in point. Former County Mayor Bill Ketron, along with county commissioners, most notably Commissioner Pettus Read recently remodeled a space for the county courthouse for a new county historical museum. I was proud that current Mayor Joe Carr wants to expand it.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once eloquently stated, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
With the collective efforts of Dr. Van West, media experts, and the broader community, we envision the creation of a documentary that will authentically convey Sampson Keeble’s enduring legacy. This endeavor will stand not only as a testament to his life but also as a contribution to our local tourism and an enhanced appreciation of our historical heritage. It’s a thought-provoking prospect; consider that there isn’t a single marker in Murfreesboro that commemorates the life and achievements of Sampson Keeble.
As many passionate historical advocates embark on this journey to uncover more Black history and other hidden gems of our history, let Sampson Keeble’s story be a reminder that resilience, intelligence, and determination and a little help from friends and “white mentors” can break through the barriers of prejudice and adversity, paving the way for generations to come.
Mike Sparks can be reached by email at MikeSparksTn@gmail.com or call his office at 615-741-6829.