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ca. 1845 – April 2, 1903

Childhood and youth in Ohio

Thomas Frank Cassels was born between 1843 and 1847 in Berlin Crossroads, Jackson County, Ohio, and grew up near other members of his large extended family living in Jackson and Ross counties. That area of the state was originally the center of the ancient Hopewell tribe (a mound building society, fl. 200 BC-500 AD) and later a major settlement of the Shawnee Indians. Neighboring Ross County is home to one of the largest concentrations of prehistoric earthworks in the United States. After the Revolutionary War, when westward settlement began in earnest, Chillicothe, the Ross county seat, played an important part in Ohio history. It was the first settlement in the interior of Ohio (1796) and the first state capital (1803-1810).

Among the early settlers of south-central Ohio were a considerable number of free blacks, who were drawn to this northern free state by its excellent farmland. The community clearly encouraged leadership and a strong sense of social justice among its residents. Four of Ohio’s governors and many other state officials came from Chillicothe, and the African American community was as successful in generating social change as the white residents were.

Several of the early African American settlers in the area were children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Perhaps that extraordinary heritage inspired this community on the Scioto River to become one of the most active stations on the Underground Railroad. And, as always, both black and white citizens of the region played important roles in this perilous undertaking.

Noted black residents of the area included fiddlers Eston and Madison Hemings (both Jefferson offspring); Lewis Woodson (1806–1878), an abolitionist AME minister and one of the founders of Wilberforce University; Charles Henry Langston, abolitionist and educator; and Frederick Madison Roberts, a Jefferson grandson, who was the first African American elected to public office in any west coast state (1918). Another local resident with strong Tennessee connections was John Mercer Langston (1829–1899), renowned educator and politician. Langston was the first Ohio black elected to public office (1855), the first dean of Howard University law school, the first president of Virginia State University, and the first African American elected to the U.S. Congress from Virginia (1888). Noted Nashville resident James C. Napier (1845-1940), a Howard University Law School graduate, married Langston’s daughter Nettie in what was considered “the biggest social event in 19th century black Washington.” (Clark)

Thomas Frank Cassels was born into this remarkable community around 1845. According to a persistent oral tradition in the family (which is compelling, despite recent DNA evidence to the contrary), Cassels’ mother, Frances L. Woodson (1814-1899) may have been the granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Her parents were Thomas C. Woodson (1790-1880) and Jemima Price (1783-1868). The strongest evidence in support of the Jefferson-Hemings claim, besides the enduring family certainty, is a pair of contemporary newspaper articles from Jefferson’s era pointing out that young Tom Woodson’s “features are said to bear a striking though sable resemblance to those of the president himself.” (Callender)

At the time of the 1850 census Thomas’s family (he had ten brothers and sisters) lived on a Jackson County farm. Although Cassels does not appear on the register of African American students at Ohio’s Oberlin College, Joseph Cartwright discovered evidence that the future legislator did study there, at least briefly (pp. 72-73). An archival image of a child photographed with an 1855 Oberlin preparatory class may be a 10-year-old Thomas.

When the 1860 census was taken, two of the older Cassels children had moved away and four new ones had joined the family. Brother Cyrus C. (16) would soon join the U.S.C.T. and leave for the war. The most intriguing piece of information in this census was the indication that Thomas James Cassels, the father of this large family, was “insane.” Although he would live another 16 years, he did not appear with the family in the 1870 census, so it is not clear where he was. The book Historical Collections of Ohio by Henry Howe (1896) mentions a Jackson County infirmary that existed during that period, so perhaps Thomas James was institutionalized.

In 1870 Frances, still living on the family farm, described herself as a widow, even though her husband was still alive. An 1875 property map of Lick Township, in north-central Jackson County, shows property number 81 to be owned by “Francis Cassell,” with neighboring properties owned by Thomas Woodson, Geo. Woodson, Lewis Lucas, and J. P. Leach. The 1876 Jackson County death records, Volume A, page 84, July 24, 1876, included “Cassels, Thomas J. (colored),” listing him as a married resident of Lick Township, and giving his age as “59y2m7d.” By 1880 Frances (63), now officially widowed, was still living on the farm with three of her unmarried children – George W. (29, “works on farm”), Jane M. (26, “at home”), and John R. (24, a teacher) – and grandson Benjamin White (6).

Marriage to Emma Frances Lett and move to Memphis

In March of 1870, Thomas Frank Cassels married Emma Frances Lett, another Ohio native, and that year’s census placed them in Ironton, Lawrence County, Ohio. At this point in their marriage, Emma was simply “keeping house,” but she would soon become a teacher.

It was not long before Thomas and Emma moved to Memphis, where they became members of the Congregational church. City directory entries indicate that Emma began teaching at the Clay Street School in 1876. Two sons had now joined the family: Clinton (9), born in Ohio in 1871, and DeWitt (7), born in Kentucky in 1873. Oddly, Freedman’s Bank records from the early 1870s identify the Cassels children’s names as Clinton and Alphonso! DeWitt would begin to appear in City Directories after 1891 as Francis D. The boys’ birth records suggest that the family left Ohio around 1872 and moved to Kentucky for a short time. At some point during that year (1872) Cassels became co-editor with N. R. Harper of a short-lived newspaper called the Louisville Weekly Planet. During the late 1870s the family settled in Memphis. The senior Cassels is said to have been the first African American admitted to the bar in Memphis and the first black lawyer to plead before the Supreme Court of West Tennessee. He was appointed Assistant Attorney General of Memphis in 1878. Thomas’s cousin, Benjamin Franklin Woodson, who grew up near the Cassels family on an Ohio farm that was one of the first stops on the Underground Railroad, joined his cousin in Memphis in 1881. An attorney and a contractor known for his woodworking skills (he produced beautiful cabinetry) he served as Deputy Surveyor of Customs.

When General Ulysses S. Grant visited Memphis in April 1880, T. F. Cassels was one of the individuals invited to accompany the former president on his visit to the Beale Street Baptist Church and LeMoyne Normal Institute.

Election to Tennessee General Assembly

In November 1880 Cassels was elected as a Republican to serve one term in the 42nd Tennessee General Assembly. He was appointed to four legislative committees: Education and Common Schools, Judiciary, Privileges and Elections, and Public Roads. He introduced ten bills during his term in the House. Two were specific to Shelby County: HB 74, to levy taxes there for 1881-1882, and HB 588, to pay debts owed to Memphis city employees and creditors after the bankrupt city lost its charter in1879. Most of Cassels’ other bills attempted to alter specific sections of the Tennessee Code or to define the job descriptions and duties of various public employees. However, two of his proposals were groundbreaking efforts to improve conditions for African Americans in Tennessee. The intent of the first, HB 73, was to prohibit extramarital sex between white men and black women. It was the earliest attempt to enact a law against the practice, common since the days of slavery, of rape committed by white men against black women. The second of these bills, HB 478, to provide compensation for the victims of mob violence, was the first effort by black legislators to end lynching and to provide some measure of justice to its victims. Unfortunately, none of Cassels’ bills would pass into law. Most were tabled in committee and never came to the House floor for a vote; HB 73, which passed its first and second readings and received considerable discussion, was rejected by the House on March 24, 1881. Leon Howard would introduce a similar bill in the 43rd General Assembly, but it too would fail.

In November 1883 the New York Globe published this interesting note, taken from the Memphis Missionary Baptist: “Hon. T. F. Cassels, Collector of Customs, has been confined to his bed for several days, but is again at his post. May he be spared for many years.”

Involvement in political events and civil rights activities

In early 1884 T. F. Cassels was elected chairman of the Tennessee Convention, a weighty gathering of Tennessee’s most powerful African American leaders. Three hundred men, representing seventeen counties, met in Nashville to discuss various political issues, one of the most provocative of which was a recent Supreme Court decision that Congress could prohibit racial discrimination by state agencies, but not by private organizations. Keynote speaker James Napier urged black voters to stick with the Republican Party, working “with united purpose and concert of action” to gain complete “privileges and blessings of American citizenship.” Samuel A. McElwee, a fellow House member who was elected secretary of the convention, proclaimed that blacks would “declare eternal war” until they secured the rights due to them. Cassels agreed that the Supreme Court’s ruling had “given rise to serious questions concerning the legal status of Negroes” and urged careful deliberation before taking any action toward securing their rights.

In July 1884 newspapers across the state carried a story about a case of cholera discovered on the Mississippi steamboat Annie P. Silver. A three-year-old French child on the boat had died of an unidentified illness, and, since a few cases of cholera had been reported in France, everyone immediately assumed the worst. Thomas Cassels, as Surveyor of Customs, was notified of this event by the U.S. Surgeon General and was ordered to inspect the steamer. Unfortunately, since the notification was not received until after the boat had left Memphis, the Annie P. Silver had already made it as far as St. Louis. No further illnesses had occurred, however, so the furor quickly died down.

In May of the same year, school teacher and activist Ida B. Wells had been thrown off a train when, having purchased a first-class ticket, she refused to leave the ladies’ car (reserved for whites only) and move to the smoking car as requested. Wells filed suit against the Chesapeake & Ohio & Southwestern Railroad Company, and hired Thomas F. Cassels as her attorney. It was not long, however, before Wells fired him. When the railroad company convinced him to drop the suit, she believed he had been bought off. Outraged, she wrote in her diary, “White men choose men of the race to accomplish the ruin of any young girl.” She then hired James M. Greer, a former Union officer, as her attorney. In December Greer won the case in Circuit Court, arguing that the company had violated two Tennessee statutes: the first prohibited railroads from charging blacks first-class fare and then seating them in second-class cars; the second required “separate but equal” accommodations for blacks and whites. Wells was awarded $500, and a headline in the Memphis Daily Appeal proclaimed, “A Darky Damsel Obtains a Verdict for Damages against the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad.” However, three years later the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, finding for the railroad company instead.

Cassels served as a Republican presidential elector in 1888. He and his family were widely respected in Memphis, as can be surmised from city directory entries, which help to fill the gap left by the lost 1890 census. Thomas, randomly called “T. Frank” and “Thomas F.,” was working as an attorney – sometimes with a partner, sometimes not. For several years in the mid-1880s, he was also listed as U.S. Surveyor/Collector of Customs for the port of Memphis. Emma frequently had her own directory entry, usually as “E. F. Cassels.” She was a teacher at the Clay Street School until 1882, at the Kortrecht Grammar School through 1886, and then simply in the “Public School.” Her name disappeared from the directory for a few years until she emerged in 1898 as the principal of the Love Avenue School. There were no entries for the Cassels’ older son, Clinton, after the 1880 census, when he was nine years old.

Final years

In 1891 Francis D. (DeWitt) Cassels appeared in the city directory as a student, boarding with his parents at 678 Broadway; in 1893 and 1894 he was teaching at the Virginia Avenue Public School, but in 1895 he was found for the first time as a member of the law firm Cassels & Cassels “Thomas F. & F. Dewitt, Lawyers, 51 Beale.” The father-son partnership continued until an entry in the Polk Directory reported, “Cassels Francis D, died Jan 30 99.”

This Tennessee Historical Commission marker provides background information about the Zion Christian Cemetery, founded by a group of freed slaves in 1876. J. Bliss White said it was “the oldest cemetery for colored people in Memphis ..., a monument to the foresight and wisdom of the early citizens of Memphis in the days succeeding the Civil War.” Among those buried there, besides Thomas F. Cassels, are the daughter of musician W. C. Handy; musician and reformer Julia Hooks; Georgia Patton Washington, the first black female physician in Tennessee; and Ida B. Wells’ friends (Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and William Stewart) whose 1892 lynchings motivated her to embark on a national anti-lynching crusade. Having fallen into serious disrepair by the turn of the century, the cemetery drew the attention of a large group of college and community volunteers, who have worked since 2005 to restore the property and to provide useful tools for genealogical research there. The cemetery is located on South Parkway in Memphis.
His obituary appeared in the Memphis Appeal, February 1, 1899, under the headline, “F. D. Cassells Dead. Colored Man of Prominence, a leader of His Race”:

Francis Dewitt Cassels, colored, a young lawyer, and son of Attorney T.F. Cassels, died Monday morning and was buried yesterday afternoon. He was a prominent member of his race, and had been married but four months, his wife being the daughter of Mail Carrier McFarland. He was for several years a teacher in the Virginia avenue public school. The funeral services were held at the Second Congregational Church, and were conducted by Rev. N.H. Pius, principal of the Howe Institute, who was assisted by the Rev. W.S. Ellington, pastor of the First Colored Baptist Church. Notwithstanding the intensely cold weather, the church, of which the deceased was an active member, was crowded, and many and beautiful were the floral offerings sent by friends. . . .

According to Shelby County death records, F. D. Cassells [sic] died January 30, 1899, of consumption (tuberculosis), at 678 Broadway, his parents’ home, attended by Dr. Elmer E. Francis, One Equitable Building, res 445 Mississippi Avenue. The undertaker responsible for his burial in Zion Christian Cemetery was Walsh and Co., John J. Collins, Manager, at 330½ Second Street, Memphis (telephone 468).

Former legislator Thomas F. Cassels died, also of tuberculosis, four years later, on April 2, 1903. His burial permit states he was an attorney at law, had been born, like his parents, in Ohio, and had been ill for one year. He died at 861 Lauderdale Street (not a hospital or infirmary), in the 13th Ward, and was survived by his wife. Like his son, he was buried in Zion Christian Cemetery (the oldest African American cemetery in Memphis). Author A. A. Taylor described T. F. Cassels as “a man of ability and character.”

A Tennessee Historical Commission marker near the cemetery entrance reads, “Zion Cemetery, comprising 15 acres, was established in 1876 by the United Sons of Zion Association, a group of former slaves who responded to the need for a respectable burial site for African-Americans. It is the final resting place for many outstanding citizens, including Georgia Patton Washington (1864-1900), who was one of the first female African-American physicians, and Thomas F. Cassels (1850-1903), who was Assistant Attorney General of Shelby County and a member of the Tennessee General Assembly.”

Clinton’s widow, Aline, returned to live with her parents for a short time, and the 1901 Polk Directory showed her working as a teacher. However, by the time of the 1910 Census (in which, for the first time the widowed Emma Cassels stated that both her children had died), Aline Cassels was living in Ward 12, Manhattan, New York, and working as a Vaudeville singer. She had lopped a couple of years off her age, saying that she was 26 (although she was certainly 30), but all the other information confirms her identity – a black female, widowed, born in Tennessee to a father from Kentucky. Her name also appeared on a passenger list on the ship Mayaro, leaving Trinidad on October 3, 1913, and arriving in New York on October 11, 1913, John Vaughn, Master. Two of the three other Americans on the ship were associated with the oil fields (one was actually from Titusville, Pennsylvania), but there was no indication that she was traveling with either of them.

Cassels commemorated

A historical marker honoring “Thomas Frank Cassels” stands in downtown Memphis. It reads, “Thomas F. Cassels is considered the first Black to practice law in Memphis. After moving to Memphis in 1875, he was appointed ‘attorney pro tem’ of the Criminal Court in 1880 and served in the Tennessee General Assembly from 1881 to 1883. During the 1800s, he was Collector of the Port of Memphis and in 1883 was appointed U.S. Surveyor of Customs. His first office was located at 317 Second Street.”

A 1908 book extolling the accomplishments of black Memphians states, in part, “In the matter of able and brilliant colored lawyers practicing at the bar of Memphis, the colored people are to be congratulated. They have an aggregation of the ablest and best equipped lawyers in the state of Tennessee. For over thirty years the colored people of Memphis have been ably represented at the bar of public justice, the pioneer in the profession having been Hon. T. F. Cassells, one of the craftiest, most resourceful, and most learned lawyers, regardless of race, that ever practiced at the Memphis bar.” (Hamilton, 59)        KBL 11/15/2012

Callender, James Thomson Callender. Richmond Recorder, September 1, 1802.
Cartwright, Joseph H. The Triumph of Jim Crow: Tennessee Race Relations in the 1880s. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.
“The Cholera: A Suspicious Case on a Mississippi River Steamer,” Nashville Daily American, July 26, 1884
Church, Roberta, and Ronald Walter Charles, authors; Charles W. Crawford, ed. Nineteenth Century Memphis Families of Color, 1850-1900.      Memphis: Murdock, 1987.
Clark, Herbert. “The Life of James Carroll Napier, 1845-1940.” Paper presented at the Afro-American Culture and History Annual Local      Conference, Nashville, 1983.
Cleveland Gazette, August 27, 1892.
Decosta-Willis, Miriam, ed. The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells: An Intimate Portrait of the Activist as a Young Woman. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.
“Doings of the Race,” New York Globe, November 17, 1883.
“Even Republicans Oppose It,” New York Herald, July 26, 1890.
“F. D. Cassells [sic] Dead: Colored Man of Prominence, a Leader of His Race,” Memphis Appeal, February 1, 1899.
Freeman, March 2, 1889; May 25, 1901.
Hamilton, G. P. The Bright Side of Memphis. Memphis: Self-published, 1901, reprinted in 2003 for Burke’s Book Store, Memphis.
“Historical Markers of Shelby County,” Shelby County Register of Deeds.
Knoxville Messenger, February 1, 1868.
“Louisville Weekly Planet,” Weekly Louisianian, December 7, 1872.
Lovett, Bobby L. "A Profile of African Americans in Tennessee History: Introduction."
McBride, Robert M., and Dan M. Robinson. Biographical Directory, Tennessee General Assembly, Volume II (1861-1901). Nashville: Tennessee      State Library and Archives, and Tennessee Historical Commission, 1979.
Memphis Avalanche, September 22, September 24, October 6, 1880.
Memphis City Directories: Boyle-Chapman, 1876; Sholes, 1877-1885; Weatherbe, 1883; Dow, 1885-1892; Polk, 1891-1896, 1898-1901; Degaris, 1897-1898.
Memphis Daily Appeal, September 14 & October 5, 1880; February 1, 1899.
Nashville American, February 29 & March 1, 1884.
“National Emancipation Day. Tennessee Has a Jubelee [sic] Day, Washington Bee, January 11, 1896.
Oberlin College Archives, Digital Collections: “Helen Ferris (Bisbee) and her 1855 Preparatory Department Class.”
“Sweeping Victories at Home and Abroad the Story Is the Same,” Arkansas Gazette, November 8, 1882.
Taylor, Alrutheus Ambush. The Negro in Tennessee, 1865-1880. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, Inc., 1941.
“The Tennessee Convention,” New York Globe, March 15, 1884.
Tennessee General Assembly. Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Tennessee. Nashville: Tavel and Howell, 1881, 1883.
Zion Cemetery Project, Department of Archaeology, Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee.
Zion Cemetery Project, Department of Pan-African Studies, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio.

Everyone who conducts Memphis research is grateful for the bountiful website produced by Tom Leatherwood, Shelby County Register of Deeds:

Links to Underground Railroad (Ohio), Jackson/Ross counties, and Cassels/Woodson info: