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.
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.