Samuel R. Lowery (c.1830 -1900)

Samuel R. Lowery
Public domain image

Samuel R. Lowery was the first black attorney to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. He was born on December 8, 1830 (or 1832), in Davidson Country, Tennessee to an enslaved father, Peter Lowery, and a Cherokee mother, Ruth Mitchell. His mother died when he was eight. Lowery and his father worked at Franklin College in Tennessee and studied under the proprietor of the college, Reverend Tolbert Fanning.

In 1849, his father purchased his freedom and joined Nashville’s Church of Disciples, where they both became preachers. Lowery left Nashville in 1857, following a December 1856 race riot that 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, OntarioCanada, where he organized Disciples of Christ 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 Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lowery returned to Nashville, where he preached to freedmen and the soldiers with the 40th U.S. Colored Troops. Later, Lowery became chaplain for the 9th United States Heavy Artillery U.S. Colored Troops. He was also a teacher for the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery.

After the Civil War, Lowery settled in Rutherford County, Tennessee, where he continued to preach and teach. He began studying law with a white attorney. In 1867, Lowery and his father founded the Tennessee Manual Labor University. Located in Smyrna, Tennessee, the curriculum emphasized agricultural and mechanical training. The school began to struggle in 1872 due to accusations of financial impropriety and terrorist pressure from the Ku Klux Klan. The financial accusations arose from white, largely Democratic disciples, who expelled Lowery from the church. Without their support, the school closed in 1874.

Lowery moved back to Nashville, where he was admitted into the bar and began practicing law. In 1875, he moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where his daughter Anne had begun raising silkworms on white mulberry trees. After her death in 1877, Lowery continued her work. He met with major silk manufacturers in the U.S. 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, Lowery was sponsored to the Supreme Court Bar by Belva Ann Lockwood, the first woman admitted into the bar. He was the fifth black person and first black Southerner to be admitted into the Supreme Court Bar and, in 1880, the first to argue a case before the Supreme Court.

Lowery spent much of his later career advocating the silk industry. In fact, he won awards for his silk in international exhibitions during the 1880s. Samuel R. Lowery died around 1900 at his cooperative community in Jefferson County, Alabama.