During the first twenty-five years following the American Civil War and the emancipation, many African American men in the South were elected to state legislatures and local government posts. Among those in Tennessee was Samuel Allen McElwee from Haywood County, one of the two western counties with a majority black population. McElwee, a lawyer, became the most powerful Republican Party leader in Haywood County in the late 19th Century. He served in the Tennessee legislature from 1882 to the rigged election of 1888. As a legislator he earned a reputation as a skilled orator and was a presenter at the National Convention of the Republican Party in 1884 in Chicago.
McElwee was born in Madison County, Tennessee and grew up in neighboring Haywood County. He was educated at local freedmen’s schools and Oberlin College in Ohio before starting a teaching career in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. McElwee also attended Fisk University, graduating in 1883 and the following year at the age of 26 he was elected to the Tennessee Legislature, representing Haywood County. While serving in the Legislature McElwee obtained a law degree from Central Tennessee Law School in Nashville in 1886. McElwee was the first and only African American to practice law in Brownsville, Tennessee until the 1960s.
While in the legislature McElwee fought for equal educational opportunities for the freed people. He worked with other black legislators to defeat bills involving Jim Crow and contract labor.
McElwee’s political career came to an abrupt end in 1888 when his conservative Democratic opponents used fraud, intimidation and terrorism to reduce the number of black voters in the heavily African American areas of Haywood and Fayette Counties. McElwee was forced to flee Brownsville as a group of black men guarded his exit. He relocated to Nashville, Tennessee after the 1888 election where he maintained a law practice and started an unsuccessful newspaper. McElwee and his wife, Georgia, moved to Chicago in 1901 where he continued his law practice until his sudden death in 1914.