Was a Knoxvillian one of the first black elected
representatives in the nation?
By Jack Neely
When we talk about Knoxville history, we’re modest about our presumptions. When we think about the first time something progressive happened here in town, we may propose that maybe it’s the first time it happened in East Tennessee, or, if we’re in a bragging mood, maybe the whole state. Only if we’re feeling really boastful do we presume we were among the first in any category in the whole South.
We rarely wonder whether we were at the front of a national movement. Or a global one. That may be the case with the election of racial minorities to municipal offices.
NPR and CBS celebrity nerd Mo Rocca has a blog that is as fun to listen to as you’d expect. It’s called Mobituaries. They’re stories about dead people, most of them already well-known to people who read a lot of histories and biographies, but Rocca successfully adds a gee-whiz factor to old stories and makes them seem fresh.
A recent episode brought up a new way of looking at something most of us already knew something about. It was about the election of several able black men to Congress in the 1870s. It was the first time blacks had served in U.S. Congress, a fact we’re used to hearing. But, as Rocca noted: It was probably the first time people of different races had ever cooperated on any legislative body in the history of the world.
I’d never thought of it that way, but maybe he’s right about America having introduced the concept of the biracial legislature to the human race. But even before those 1870s U.S. Congresses, within America there were some smaller biracial legislative bodies. One of them was very close by. Even before black men were in Congress, in just a handful of cities in the whole universe, black men sat on the city councils. One of them was in Knoxville.
Tennessee politics in the 19th century has a lava-lamp aspect to it, and due to the complexities of postwar politics, Tennessee once looked like one of the most racially progressive states in the nation. During the four years that Parson William G. Brownlow of Knoxville was governor, Tennessee was exempted from the stringently bureaucratic rules of federal Reconstruction due to its early re-admission to the Union. Still, perhaps motivated by the instinct to rub Confederates’s noses in their defeat, Brownlow and his legislature passed a bill allowing Tennessee’s black male citizens, including those who had recently been slaves, to vote.
That was in 1867. The following year, further state legislation permitted black Tennesseans to hold office.
We might assume this had already happened everywhere, as a result of emancipation. However, many white Americans, including some abolitionists and Unionists, while ready or even eager to accept black people as “free”—were not quite ready to welcome them aboard as full and equal citizens, with voting privileges. At the end of the war, in fact, only a minority of former Union states allowed full election-day rights to African-Americans. It wasn’t until 1870 that the United State ratified the 15th amendment, which gave black men, regardless of their previous state of servitude, the right to vote.
Tennessee was an oddity, not just in the South, but in America. Tennessee became a radical experiment in racial cooperation. Thanks to Brownlow’s strong-arm tactics, criticized at the time especially by former Confederates, Tennessee passed major civil-rights legislation before most American states, north and south, did. Brownlow-led legislatures passed the 13th amendment, barring slavery, and the 14th amendment, assuring equal protection under the law (thanks to Brownlow’s coalition, Tennessee was the third state in the entire nation to pass that one).
But Tennessee rejected the 15th amendment altogether. By the time it came along, black men in Tennessee could already vote. Parson Brownlow was no longer governor, former Confederates had recovered their right to vote, and the black vote, although still legal, was a much smaller part of the whole than it had been just after the war.
However, during that three-year postwar window, Tennessee was arguably America’s first state with a sizable black population to allow blacks to vote.
As a result, in an election on Saturday, Jan. 2, 1869, Isaac Gammon was elected to Knoxville’s Board of Aldermen. With that gesture, Knoxville became one of the world’s first cities with biracial government.
We don’t know as much about Mr. Gammon as we’d like. He was probably born into slavery around 1818. He was said to be a large man. He had lost an eye at some point, but that didn’t seem to slow him down much.
Perhaps while he was still enslaved, he married a free black woman, and during that period also got involved with the local Methodist church. A devoutly religious man, he joined the leadership of Logan Temple, Knoxville’s first African Methodist Episcopal church.
As a slave he got in trouble in 1863 for talking a bit too excitedly about the approach of the Union Army, for which he got a severe whipping. Still, upon their arrival, he passed word to the Union forces that he’d much rather work for them than for the guy with the whip. Union troops got the message, and “impressed” him into their assistance.
Before the war was even over, Gammon was exercising his new freedom of speech, especially considering his most passionate cause, education. By 1864, blacks had already started their own schools for freed slaves, with black teachers. When word got around that they were to be replaced by white teachers, Gammon was one of nine who publicly objected, in print, insisting that the current black teachers were fully capable. He became the recording secretary of the East Tennessee Freedmen’s School League, which promoted the construction and maintenance of good schools for former slaves.
Later, after emancipation, he got a job working for the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railroad, which was headquartered downtown. Some knew him, a little irreverently, as “One-Eyed Ike.”
He became a property owner, with land along Clinch Avenue downtown. No longer under the threat of the whip, he often got involved in politics, campaigning for white candidates he liked. In 1867, he was peripherally involved in an intriguing controversy, in which two women from Pennsylvania came to town to press a lawsuit against a Knoxville pastor for slander and defamation; Gammon hosted them in his house. There may be another story there.
The year Tennessee black men got the right to hold office, Gammon chose to stand for elective city office.
Knoxville was a small, war-scarred town of about 8,000. Its recovery from the war was not necessarily certain. It had a railroad station and some marble mills, an iron foundry, a riverboat wharf, a couple of hotels, several saloons, and a market square, where the city had just built its first municipal building, City Hall. It was home to about seven churches, a state school for the deaf and, just outside of town, a tiny hilltop university.
Gammon ran for one of his ward’s two seats on the Board of Aldermen. Marcus DeLafayette Bearden, a wounded former Union officer, had been elected mayor, and began his radical-leaning administration in the city’s first formal City Hall, located at the northern end of Market Square.
The new state laws enfranchising blacks but also revoking the rights of former Confederates caused a stir, unseating most of the incumbents, even though most, including Mayor Luttrell, had been Unionists. The election of Bearden and subsequent election of aldermen was challenged in court as unconstitutional. A federal judge had a look and said it looked fine to him. When Luttrell and his allies relented, Bearden moved into in the still-new City Hall building on Market Square.
The Third Ward was not considered a black district. It was, in fact, a broad band across the center of downtown, north of Cumberland, south of Union, between First and Second Creeks. Gammon lived at the corner of Clinch and High, near Second Creek, in the vicinity of what’s now the Sunsphere. He threw his hat in the ring. Only men could vote, of course, and only men who were not former Confederates, so ward numbers were never large. With only 79 votes, Gammon became that urban ward’s second-most popular candidate.
He was at first one black representative on a board of 10 aldermen. However, another black man, a cobbler named David Brown, was elected as an alderman in the separate municipality of East Knoxville. Just weeks after that election, East Knoxville was incorporated into Knoxville. Although some vestiges of the separation seem to have persisted—the two boards of aldermen are listed as separate bodies in the 1869 City Directory—some modern sources list both Gammon and Brown as members of a combined 18-member board.
Perhaps because things seemed so extraordinary anyway, the election of black men to Knoxville government was not heralded with banner headlines in either triumph or despair. They were, in fact, just listed by name, without reference to race. Gammon does appear in the City Directory of that year with the obligatory asterisk for “colored.”
Historian Bob Booker—himself an African-American office holder in a much-later era—says his research indicates Gammon was a conscientious alderman in a city that had a lot of problems, working on the usual practical issues like barking-dog ordinances and bridge improvements. During his tenure, Gammon became a “fire policeman” with the Colored Fire Company.
All the while, he was also pushing for African-American rights in one of the most perilous years of the era. Just weeks after Gammon began serving on Knoxville’s Board of Aldermen, Brownlow resigned to take a seat on the U.S. Senate, trusting the governorship to Dewitt Senter, a Unionist who had been Brownlow’s radical ally in the postwar years. However, when that term expired later in the year, facing an actual election on his own, Senter shocked his fellow radicals by becoming a Centrist, in a state where the center was closer to the former Confederacy. He promised to re-enfranchise Confederate voters. In that gesture, he gained tens of thousands of friends among former Confederates, but lost the confidence of much of the black community.
Knoxville’s city marshal expressed his support for Senter. In June, 1869, Gammon and several other anti-Senter aldermen pressed charges against the city marshal for drunkenness and disorderly conduct, while the marshal’s allies, like the Democratic Daily Press & Herald, claimed his only sin was support for Senter.
An opinionated piece derided Gammon as “a huge, one-eyed Negro” and described seeing Gammon “arm in arm” with a white anti-Senter alderman down Gay Street, implying collusion.
Near the end of his term, Gammon and several other politicians, black and white, signed a petition to “allow all legal voters to vote in the municipal election, whether they own property or not.”
Perhaps due to differing voting cycles, Nashville and Chattanooga had black representation a few months before Knoxville did. The year Gammon and Brown were in office, Maryville elected, for the first and only time, a black mayor.
Gammon was apparently unsuccessful in gaining a second term—snide comments suggest a conspiracy against him within his ward that led to the disaffection of some of his white radical cohorts.
When Gammon left Knoxville’s Board of Aldermen, in early 1870, most states still didn’t allow African-Americans to vote. That changed, on paper at least, with the passage of the 15th Amendment later that year.
But many more black men were to follow soon. In 1871, a porter named Edward Livingston returned a black voice to City Hall, for the first of two terms. Attorney William F. Yardley joined the board in 1872; four years later, he would run a very long-shot campaign for governor. In one year, 1878, there were three blacks on the Board of Aldermen. Blacks were represented on Knoxville’s city councils for most of the 43-year period from Gammon’s 1869 election until 1912, when a radical change in city government reduced the size of the board to five, elected at large.
Gammon remained active in politics. By June, 1870, he was a member of the bi-racial Executive Committee of the Republican Club of Knoxville, an eight-member body that included editor and future mayor William Rule and former mayor Bearden. That October, Gammon was a delegate to a senatorial convention with Bearden and black attorney W.F. Yardley.
In 1871, Gammon and Yardley both spoke at a Maryville convention in favor of a “normal school”—a teachers’ college—for former slaves. It was part of the movement that led, a few years later, to the establishment of Knoxville College. Gammon would not live to see it happen.
In 1872, Gammon signed a petition attempting to draft Jacob M. Thornburgh, Union veteran and young district attorney general, known to ally himself with the radical Republicans, to run for Congress. The effort was successful, and Thornburgh served three terms.
But always he was involved with his church, Logan Temple, located on Marble Alley, between State and Central. For years he held the office of steward for the church, and was also the superintendent of the Sunday School, which, with 150 “scholars,” was a role of some significance.
When he died suddenly of an apparent heart attack—he was 55— in March, 1874, he rated an obituary in the Daily Press & Herald, which was rare for a black citizen. The rather long obituary column emphasizes only Gammon’s religious virtues, without mention of his political involvements—or, for that matter, his profession, family, or any other part of his life—unless it can be discerned in a line like, “Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble.” He had been a leader of Logan Chapel’s Sunday School from its beginning—when Sunday schools were still a new thing. “We reverently deplore the loss of one so loved and so respected.”
There’s no mention of his being the first anything. The burial place of “One-Eyed Ike,” one of the first African-American elected officials in America, is unknown.
Over the years, the simple City Hall building was incorporated into the ever-expanding Market Hall, and came to look like the less-elaborate northern end of a two-headed caterpillar of brick and stone. When it was all torn down in 1960—the first year of civil-rights sit-ins in Knoxville—I doubt anyone thought of that odd northern end of the Market Hall as a building of national or even global history, as a place where one of the world’s first biracial governments met.
But Market Square, which Gammon would have recognized, is still there. City Hall, which once hosted several of the world’s first biracial city councils, was a tall square brick building with a bell tower about whether the stage is today.