Montgomery County’s first Black legislator in the Tennessee General Assembly


Jesse M.H. Graham lived a life of experiences — before and after being elected in 1896 to represent Montgomery County in the 50th Tennessee General Assembly.

Jesse H. M. Graham

Jesse H. M. Graham

Graham, who was born in Clarksville or Nashville, was also a Fisk University student, teacher postal worker, newspaper editor and U.S. soldier who rose to the rank of second lieutenant. He may have served in the Spanish-American War. He did serve in the 317th Infantry Engineers during World War I, according to the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

He was one of 14 African-Americans to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly during Reconstruction. At the time, Graham’s win was reportedly the largest vote ever cast for a legislative candidate in the county.

But his political future came to a quick end weeks later. Graham’s opponent challenged his Tennessee residency.

Graham was provisionally seated on Jan. 4, 1897. Sixteen days later, the Committee of Elections declared Graham and his opponent ineligible, and the General Assembly passed a resolution declaring the seat vacant. Ten days later, in a special election that drew few voters, Montgomery County elected Democrat John Baggett.

Press reports from the time indicate the General Assembly passed a bill after Reconstruction that blocked the election of Black candidates. No African-American would be elected to the governing body until 1964.

Graham is buried in Section 4, Lot 2735, of Arlington National Cemetery.

One of the foremost Black violinist and neoromantic composer of the early 20th century


Clarence Cameron White

Clarence Cameron White

Clarence Cameron White, considered the foremost Black violinist and neoromantic composer of the early 20th century, spent just two years in Clarksville, his birthplace. His family left shortly after the death of his father in 1882 — White was 2 years old.

His mother, violinist Jennie Scott White, moved the family to Ohio where she previously studied music), Chattanooga and Washington, D.C., where as a pre-teen he studied under Will Marion Cook, a Black composer, violinist and choral director. White was tutored and supported financially by an extensive list of music giants.  

White traveled the world, from London to Haiti, in search of inspirational material. His compositions evolved from “neo-romantic in style to inspired by Black folk music,” according to the Library of Congress. His work included “Forty Negro Spirituals,” “Kutamba Rhapsody,” “Symphony in D Minor” and “A Night in Sans Souci.” In 1928, he composed the score to “Ouanga!,” an opera based on Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of the leaders of the 1804 Haitian revolution.

White died June 30, 1960, in New York at age 80.

One of the most influential teachers of Clarksville’s Black youth


Joseph Roberts was one of the most influential teachers of Clarksville’s Black youth, helping teenagers and their future children navigate education hurdles during and after the civil rights movement.  

Joseph Roberts in 1999 displays a picture of Dr. Robert Burt and his family. Burt had taken Roberts' tonsils out when he was 7 years old.

Joseph Roberts in 1999 displays a picture of Dr. Robert Burt and his family. Burt had taken Roberts’ tonsils out when he was 7 years old.

He was also an avid photographer and community organizer.

Roberts, a 1947 graduate of Burt High School, served as a medical and laboratory technician with the U.S. Army. He obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Tennessee State and worked as a cancer research assistant at Vanderbilt University.

In 1957, Roberts arrived at the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System. “Mr. Joe” taught a variety of science classes, including chemistry, biology and physics. He later served as assistant principal, principal and system-wide administrator, as well as president of the Burt Alumni Association.

Roberts once told elementary school students they should consider themselves blessed to have the freedom to attend school, as well as to chose the school they want to attend.

In 1991, Roberts retired after 34 years of service. He died in 2017 at age 88.

First Black woman to become a dentist in the U.S


A Clarksville native, Ida Gray Nelson Rollins (also known as Ida Gray) is the first Black woman dentist in the United States. She is also the first Black woman with a doctoral degree in dental surgery.

Gray was born in Clarksville on March 4, 1867.

Dr. Ida Gray

Dr. Ida Gray
Photo submitted by JACKIE COLLINS

Her mother died shortly after Gray was born. She was sent to Ohio and was raised by an aunt. 

While in high school, Gray worked as an assistant in a dental office under the supervision of Jonathon and William Taft. Johnathan was dean of the Ohio College of Dentistry and advocated for women being trained as dentists.

In 1887, Gray graduated from Gaines Public High School. Taft encouraged her to apply to the University of Michigan. She graduated in three years, becoming the first black woman to graduate with a doctorate of dental surgery in the United States. 

In 1890, Gray moved to Cincinnati and opened a private practice. Five years later, she relocated to Chicago and set up a second practice. 

Gray retired from dentistry in the 1930s, remaining in Chicago. She was married to James Nelson in 1895 and remarried after his passing. Her second husband was William A. Rollins. 

In 1953, Gray died at age 86.