Samuel R. Lowery was the first black lawyer to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. He was born on December 8, 1830 or 1832 in Davidson Country, Tennessee to his black slave father Peter Lowery and free Cherokee mother Ruth Mitchell. His mother died when he was eight, but—together with his father—Lowery worked at Franklin College in Tennessee. There, both studied under the white proprietor of the college, Reverend Tolbert Fanning.
In 1849, his father purchased their freedom and joined Nashville’s Church of Disciples, at which they both became preachers. Lowery stayed there until 1857, when a local race riot in December 1856 endangered the lives of many free black families. He moved to Cincinnati, Ohio with his father and continued preaching. In 1858, he married Adora Robinson and the couple had two children, Ruth and Annie. The following year he moved to Chatham, Ontario, Canada where he organized Christian Churches.
Lowery returned to the United States around 1862, settling on a farm given to him by his father near West Lancaster in Fayette County, Ohio. After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lowery returned to Nashville where he preached to the free men and soldiers of the 40th US Colored Troops under the command of Colonel R. K. Crawford. Later, Lowery transferred to the 9th United States Heavy Artillery US Colored Troops to be their chaplain and taught basic educational skills to the 2nd US Colored Light Artillery.
After the war, he settled in Rutherford County, Tennessee where he continued to preach, teach, and began studying law with a white attorney. In 1867, he founded the Tennessee Manual Labor University with his father on Murfreesboro Road in Smyrna, Tennessee. But the school began to struggle in 1872 due to accusations of financial impropriety and terrorist pressure from the Ku Klux Klan. The financial accusations arouse from white, largely Democratic, disciples who expelled Lowery from the church. Without their support the school closed in 1874.
Following this, Lowery moved back to Nashville, where he was admitted into the bar and began practicing law. In 1875, he moved to Huntsville, Alabama. Around 1874 his daughter Anne began raising silkworms on white mulberry trees and, after she died in 1877, Lowery continued her work. He met with major silk manufacturers in the US and, in 1875, established the Lowery Industrial Academy. Later, he also founded the S.R. and R.M. Lowery Industrial Silk Culture and Manufacturing Company. In 1879, Lowery was editor of the National Freeman in Huntsville and, in 1880, he established a cooperative community, Loweryvale, in Jefferson County, Alabama, near Birmingham.
On February 2, 1880 when he was around 50 years old, Lowery was sponsored to the Supreme Court Bar by Belva Ann Lockwood, the first woman admitted into the bar, and practiced in front of the Court. In this, he was the fifth black person and first black Southerner to be admitted into the Supreme Court Bar and, in 1880, the first to practice before the Supreme Court.
He spent much of his later career advocating the silk industry. In fact, he won numerous awards for his silk in international exhibitions in Louisville in the 1880s, New Orleans, Louisiana in 1884, and Omaha, Nebraska in 1898.
Samuel R. Lowery died around 1900 at his cooperative community in Jefferson County, Alabama.