Clarksville, TN – Ronnie Glynn, will become Clarksville’s first Black state legislator since 1896 will be sworn in during a special ceremony held at Burt Elementary School. Rep. Glynn has made public education a major priority and will begin his term in one of Clarksville’s most historic public schools.
“I am excited to get sworn in and begin to get to do the work I was elected to do – bring people together to tackle the day-to-day problems faced by Tennesseans,” said Representative Ronnie Glynn. “Implementing/expanding Medicaid, protecting and supporting our neighborhood/community schools, bringing good paying jobs to Tennessee, and stopping the assault on Tennessee women.”
Commissioner Rashidah Leverett will serve as MC with remarks by Montgomery County Trustee Kimberly Wiggins and administration of the oath by Judge Tim Barnes.
Representative Ronnie Glynn will be sworn in on Saturday December 10th at 2:00 PM, Burt Elementary School, Gymnasium, 110 Bailey St, Clarksville, TN 37040
In 1896 Jesse Graham, of Clarksville, was the last Black legislator elected in the state prior to Jim Crow. Soon after the election he was removed from his seat by the body, an election was hastily held within 10 days to replace him. The legislature banned Black candidates for state office a few weeks later.
February 8, 1864 – July 25, 1930
Graham is blocked from taking his House seat
A Republican teacher, postal worker, and newspaper editor, Jesse M. H. Graham was elected in early November 1896 to represent Montgomery County in the 50th Tennessee General Assembly, 1897-1898. He was not only the first African American chosen to represent Montgomery County, but also the first Republican representative elected in that district since Reconstruction – reportedly by “the largest vote ever cast for a legislative candidate” in the county (Freeman, November 28, 1896). Jesse Graham seemed to be unstoppable until November 15, 1896, when the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that he had lived in Louisville until October 1895, not only holding a job there, but also registering and voting as a Kentucky resident. His opponent promptly called attention to the three-year residency requirement outlined in the Tennessee state constitution and challenged Graham’s eligibility to hold office. He was provisionally seated on January 4, 1897, while the Committee on Elections debated the issue. On January 20, 1897, after the committee declared both Graham and his opponent ineligible, the General Assembly passed a resolution, by a vote of 76-0 (with 23 not voting), declaring the seat vacant. Ten days later, in a lackluster election that “appeared to elicit little interest” among either city or county voters, Montgomery County elected Democrat John Baggett to the seat. According to several newspaper reports, the General Assembly soon passed a bill blocking the election of Black candidates. It is undeniably true that no other African Americans were elected to the General Assembly from any county in Tennessee until 1964.
Graham was not the only elected legislator to be denied his seat in the General Assembly. David Rivers had already served one term before being driven from Fayette County (and the House seat to which he had just been elected) by racial violence. Samuel A. McElwee served three consecutive terms (and had even had his name placed in nomination to be Speaker of the House) before facing a similar fate in Haywood County, where he was physically driven out of the county by nightriders, and where corrupt election officials would later brag about misrepresenting the number of votes cast. After serving two House terms, John Boyd struggled unsuccessfully to reverse a fraudulent ruling in Fayette County that nullified his probable election to the Senate. Of all fourteen men who won House elections, only Graham failed to serve out at least one term to which he had been elected.
Early years and education
Jesse M. H. Graham’s story has as many questions as answers. He was born in either Nashville or Clarksville (accounts differ) and attended public schools in Montgomery and Davidson counties. Neither of his parents was a slave. The mystery of his two middle initials, which he never explained in print, may be solved by the story that his father, Monroe, a stone mason, was said to be the son of Sam Houston (hence the “M. H.,” standing for “Monroe Houston”) but was raised by a Major Graham in Gallatin, Tennessee, and took his surname thereafter. Whether true or not – and Sam Houston was certainly still living in Tennessee when Monroe was born – the story was widely circulated at the time, and several newspapers referred to it. Jesse Graham’s closest friends reportedly called him “Fred Houston.”
After Graham graduated from high school in 1881 “with the best percentage attainable in that branch of study,” State Senator William M. Daniel nominated him for a Peabody Scholarship to attend Fisk University, where he studied “common” English and education. He made his mark as a talented orator but was also known as “almost a phenomenon in mathematics,” while showing “considerable dramatic talent in his rhetorical classes.” A period newspaper article said he was “the first colored boy to receive a state scholarship from the senatorial district.” As a Peabody scholar, his name appeared in the Minute Books of the State Board of Education in two separate entries. [The State Board, formed in April 1875, was responsible for overseeing the University of Nashville’s transition to Peabody College and for administering the Peabody Scholarships to both black and white students.] On November 30, 1881, Graham’s name appeared on a Board list under this heading: “The following Bills were presented, found correct, and ordered paid, Fisk University for the following students, viz. . . . Jessee Graham.” On January 19, 1883, the names of two future legislators appeared in the list after the statement, “The following bills from Fisk University were found correct and ordered paid: . . . Saml. A. McAlwee [sic] . . . Jesse M. H. Graham.” A third black legislator was also a Peabody Scholarship recipient: David F. Rivers’ name appeared on the list of Roger Williams University students in the April 24, 1883, minutes.
A teacher and Post Office employee
After graduating from Fisk, Graham evidently taught school for some time in Clarksville and Kentucky (reportedly at Allensville, Elkton, and Bloomfield) – one source said he taught for eight or ten years “and was always considered among the best.” An 1891 city directory entry from Clarksville says he was running a saloon at 97 Strawberry Street. Around 1892 he moved to Louisville, where he scored so well on a civil service exam that he overcame more than 40 competitors to win a position at the Louisville post office. An admiring article in the November 28, 1896, Freeman said that Graham “soon became to be a recognized authority on all questions pertaining to postal laws” while also being rated as “the speediest stamper of third class matter in the United States.” After three years in Louisville, Graham evidently had a falling out with the new postmaster and returned to Clarksville, where he took over the editorship of the Clarksville Enterprise. Described as being “fond of music and an excellent performer on the slide trombone,” he was manager of the Clarksville brass band for some time.
According to Clarksville historian Charles M. Waters, local Democratic politics faced a surprisingly determined black opposition during the last decade of the 19th century. The economic depression that held the nation hostage had disrupted political business-as-usual, and a spirited voter registration drive in 1892 had brought out throngs of black voters, resulting in an African American majority. One of the first changes was the election of the first Black city councilor in Clarksville’s history, John W. Page, who held the seat until 1899. Others followed: a second African American city councilor, Nace Dixon, was in office until 1913; Jerry Wheeler was elected to the County Court in 1894; and newspaper publisher Jesse M. H. Graham won election to the General Assembly, although, as we have seen, he was unable to keep his seat.
An article in the Freeman in May 1897 mentioned that he had “aided in Centennial work” in Nashville, perhaps assisting with activities in the Negro Pavilion. The 1917 city directory lists Graham as a teacher, and a Leaf Chronicle article from the same year says he was “formerly a schoolteacher in the colored public school of this city.”