By Clint Confehr
COLUMBIA, TN — The complex life of a Tennessee slave owner and his contributions to Civil Rights after the Civil War are being considered by the African American Heritage Society of Maury County.
Samuel Mayes Arnell was elected to the state House in 1865 as an “Unconditional Unionist” who worked to “secure voting rights for the formerly enslaved,” according to the Heritage Society’s announcement that Maury County Archives Director Thomas Price will discuss Arnell’s “complex life” at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21, in the archives building, 201 E. 6th St., Columbia.
Arnell served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives when he wrote and introduced two bills that became law “to prevent ex-Confederates from voting in state and national elections,” Tennessee’s Tourist Department states.
The African American Heritage Society (AAHS) here has Price as the first speaker in its “2023 Quarterly Lecture Series: Democracy in America.” Price became the county archives director about five years ago after serving 21 years as the curator at 301 W. 7th St. — a few blocks west of the archives — for the President James K. Polk Home and Museum.
As a boy, Polk (1795-1849) attended a school in the Zion Community west of Columbia where Arnell was born in 1833. Arnell was related to founders of the Presbyterian community. Educated at Amherst College in Massachusetts, Arnell returned to Columbia, practiced law, started some businesses, and became a politician.
“He had owned slaves,” the AAHS Newsletter reports. “When the county began to split at the outset of the Civil War, Arnell remained a Unionist, despite his previous pro-slavery proclivities. His Unionist sympathies put him in danger on more than one occasion.”
He was a Republican and a Whig before the war. After a disputed congressional election, the governor awarded the election certificate to Arnell who served until 1871, state tourist developers say. Arnell was Columbia’s postmaster (1879-1885) and then superintendent of schools. Arnell returned to Washington, moved to Johnson City, and died in 1903.
The Heritage Society’s first meeting of the year comes with: an opportunity to buy an African American History Calendar; and, the AAHs’ offer to churches, libraries, museums and schools to display its three-panel exhibit “Education in Maury County: The African American Experience.” The society’s web site, aahsocietymctn.org, offers the exhibit at no charge. Completed in November, the traveling exhibit was funded with a grant from Humanities Tennessee.