Samuel McElwee was born a slave in Madison County, Tennessee in 1857. Robert and Georgianna McElwee were his parents. During Reconstruction, he was a lawyer and the most powerful Republic party leader in Haywood County, Tennessee. McElwee was the first African American legislator to serve three terms and the first to be nominated as Speaker of the House.
In Madison County, Tennessee, McElwee was born into slavery. After emancipation, he moved to Haywood County with his family, where he attended freedmen’s school for a few months each year.
McElwee enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1875. During his menial labor, he paid for his education. He returned to the South after a year and taught school for three years while also selling books, Bibles, and patent medicine. McElwee, on the other hand, yearned for more education.
He continued to study Latin, German, and algebra twice a week with a white Vanderbilt student who tutored him. McElwee enrolled at Fisk University in 1878 after his tutor made university officials aware of his hardworking student. He graduated in 1883, opened a store in Haywood County, and began self-studying law.
McElwee went on to serve two terms in the Tennessee General Assembly after graduating. McElwee introduced legislation during his first legislative session to increase funding for the education of black teachers. His appeal to white legislators was based on African-American contributions to the state’s history and their opportunities in the future progress of the “New South.”
McElwee’s political career came to an end in 1888. His conservative Democratic opponents used fraud, intimidation, and terrorism to reduce the number of black voters in Haywood and Fayette Counties during election season. McElwee was forced to flee Brownsville as a group of black men stood guard. After the election, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he practiced law and launched an unsuccessful newspaper.