Tennessee State Library and Archives

Jesse M. H. Graham, February 8, 1869 - July 25, 1930

Jesse M. H. Graham

Jesse M. H. Graham
from the Louisville Courier Journal,
November 15, 1896.

A Republican teacher and newspaper editor, Jesse M. H. Graham was elected to represent Montgomery County in the 50th Tennessee General Assembly, 1897-1898. He was not only the first African American chosen to represent Montgomery County, but also the first Republican legislator elected in that district since Reconstruction.  On November 15, 1896, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that Graham had lived in Louisville until October 1895, not only holding a job there, but also registering and voting as a Kentucky resident.  His opponent promptly called attention to the three-year residency requirement outlined in the Tennessee state constitution and challenged Graham’s eligibility to hold office. He was provisionally seated on January 4, 1897, while the Committee on Elections debated the issue. However, on January 20, 1897, after the committee declared both Graham and his opponent ineligible, the General Assembly passed a resolution, by a vote of 76-0 (with 23 not voting), declaring the seat vacant. Montgomery County voters later elected Democrat John Baggett to the seat.

Graham is the only one of the 19th century black legislators-elect who did not complete a single term in the General Assembly.  David Rivers had already served one term before being driven out of Fayette County (and the House seat to which he had just been elected) by racial violence. Samuel A. McElwee served three consecutive terms and even had his name placed in nomination to be Speaker of the House before facing a similar fate in Haywood County, where corrupt election officials later bragged about misrepresenting the number of votes cast.  After serving two House terms, John Boyd struggled unsuccessfully to reverse a fraudulent ruling in Fayette County that had nullified his Senate bid.  Of all fourteen men, only Graham failed to serve out the only term to which he had been elected.

Jesse M. H. Graham’s story leaves us with almost as many questions as answers.  He was born in either Nashville or Clarksville (accounts differ) and lived most of his early years in Clarksville, attending public schools in Montgomery and Davidson counties.  After he graduated from high school in 1881, he earned a Peabody Scholarship to attend Fisk University, where he studied “common” English and education.  As a Peabody scholar, his name appeared in the minute books of the State Board of Education in two separate entries.  [The State Board was formed in April 1875 and was charged with overseeing the University of Nashville/ Peabody College and administering the Peabody Scholarships to both black and white students.]  On November 30, 1881, Graham’s name appeared on a board list under this heading: “The following Bills were presented, found correct, and ordered paid, Fisk University for the following students, viz. . . . Jessee Graham.” On January 19, 1883, the names of two future legislators appeared in the list after the statement, “The following bills from Fisk University were found correct and ordered paid: . . . Saml. A. McAlwee . . . Jesse M. H. Graham.”  A third black legislator was also a Peabody Scholarship recipient: David F. Rivers’ name appeared on the list of Roger Williams University students in the April 24, 1883, minutes.

Census records provide little helpful information about the dashing Mr. Graham’s marital status, because he listed himself as living alone at the time of each census from 1900 to 1930.  An article by Jill Hastings-Johnson suggests that he was married to the daughter of George W. Murphy of Lebanon in Wilson County, Tennessee, but does not provide any information about Miss Murphy except that she lived in Falls City (an early name for Louisville), Kentucky.  There is no trace of George W. Murphy, her father, in any census record.  The marital-status entry for Jesse Graham in the 1900 census is illegible – it may be either an “M” (married) or a “W” (widowed).  In 1920 Graham clearly stated that he was widowed.  In 1930 he said that he was married, but was inexplicably living alone as a lodger in a boarding house.  After his death in Washington, D.C., a few weeks later, information was provided for his death certificate by Genoveva Graham, who identified herself as his wife.  None of the records located thus far have mentioned children.

After teaching school in Kentucky for a time (variously at Allensville, Elkton, and Bloomfield), he took a job as a postal clerk in Louisville, Kentucky, before returning to work in the Clarksville post office.  (At some point he seems also to have worked in the Lebanon post office, as well.)  An 1891 city directory entry from Clarksville says he was running a saloon at 97 Strawberry Street.  The 1917 city directory lists him as a teacher, and a Leaf Chronicle article from the same year agrees that he was “formerly a school teacher in the colored public school of this city.”  In 1895 he was appointed editor of the Clarksville Enterprise, an African American newspaper.

There is some evidence that Graham may have served in the Spanish American war.  A May 16, 1898, article in the Clarksville Leaf Chronicle reports,

                  J. M. H. Graham has received from the National Volunteer Reserve an enrollment roster, with instructions to secure the enlistment of colored volunteers for the United States Army.  A meeting will be held at the courthouse to-night for the purpose of enlisting all volunteers.  Steps have already been taken in this direction, about sixty volunteers having thus far been enrolled.  Temporarily Jesse Firse has been selected as captain, L. L. Ferguson as First Lieutenant and J. M. H. Graham as Second Lieutenant.  It is thought that a full company may be secured at to-night’s meeting.

At some point before the onset of World War I, Graham was sent to the Philippines as a clerk in the U. S. Bureau of Audit.  He returned to Clarksville briefly, but was soon selected by Colonel E. V. Smith of Nashville to be sent to Iowa for Army officer training.  His selection for this program is further evidence that he may have had prior military experience.

During World War I the U.S. Army commissioned more than 1,200 African American officers. The only training camp set up exclusively for black officers was in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, which was operational from June through October 1917. (A few other black officers received their commissions at officer training camps in France, but War Department records do not specify which of those were black and which were white.)  Jesse Graham was one of the 638 officers of the 17th Provisional Training Regiment who graduated from officer training in the Fort Des Moines program. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army on October 15, 1917, Graham was assigned to the 317th Engineers in Camp Sherman, Chillicothe, Ohio. Camp Sherman was just being organized.  It opened on November 4, 1917, and demobilized on March 31, 1919. 

Honorably discharged at war's end, Graham returned to Tennessee. Making his home once again in Clarksville, he served as an officer of St. Peter's African Methodist Episcopal Church and helped to found American Legion Post No. 143.
In later years Graham moved to Washington, D.C.  He was residing there at the time of the 1930 census, in which he listed his occupation as “clerk,” presumably for the Bureau of Audit or some other government entity.  According to District of Columbia records of deaths and burials, Jesse Graham died at the age of 61 (the census said he was 55) on July 25, 1930 – his death must have occurred very shortly after the census enumerator’s visit – and was buried four days later.  Information for the death certificate, including his occupation, “Ex-soldier US Army,” was provided by his wife, Genoveva Garcia Graham. 

The 1900 census for Lumberton, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, listed 24-year-old Genoveva Garcia, born December 1875 in New Mexico. The 1910 census showed the same woman, then 35, working as a cook on the Jicarilla Apache Indian Reservation in Rio Arriba County.  The name seems to have been fairly common among Hispanic women in the Southwest, but most of the other women in census records became Garcias through marriage.  How Genoveva came to Washington, D. C., or how she met Jesse Graham remains a mystery, along with many other facts of his life.

However, one fact that has eluded researchers for years has recently come to light.  A few days after his 1930 death, Second Lieutenant Jesse “H” Graham of the 317th Infantry Engineers was buried in Section 4, Lot 2735, of Arlington National Cemetery.                                  

KBL 11/30/2010


Army Center of Military History.  Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington, D.C.             http://www.history.army.mil/html/forcestruc/lineages/branches/eng/0317enbn.htm
Clarksville Leaf Chronicle, November 16, 1896; May 16, 1898; June 14, 1917.
Granberry, Dorothy.  “When the Rabbit Foot Was Worked and Republican Votes Became Democratic
            Votes: Black Disfranchisement in Haywood County, Tennessee.”  Tennessee Historical
             Quarterly, Vol. LXIII, No. 1, Spring 2004.
Hastings-Johnson, Jill.  Montgomery County, Tenn., Archivist.  Notes,
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.
Nashville American, December 18, 1896.
Scott, Emmett J.  Scott’s Official History of The American Negro in the World War. 1919.            http://www.gwpda.org/wwi-www/Scott/SChA1.htm
Sweeney, W. Allison.  History of the American Negro in the Great World War: His Splendid Record in the Battle Zones of Europe; Including a Resume of His Past Services to his Country in the Wars of the Revolution, of 1812, the War of Rebellion, the Indian Wars on the Frontier, the Spanish-American War, and the Late Imbroglio with Mexico. 1919 
Tennessee General Assembly.  Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Tennessee.
Nashville: Tavel and Howell, 1881, 1883.
Tennessee State Board of Education Minute Book #55.  Tennessee State Library and Archives,
            Nashville, Tennessee.
Waters, Charles M., and John L. Butler.  Historic Clarksville, 1784-2004. Clarksville, TN:             Historic Clarksville Pub. Co., 2004.

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