Thomas A. Sykes represented Nashville in the 42nd Tennessee General Assembly (1881-1882), but few Middle Tennesseans would recognize his name today. His story echoes the experiences of many successful African Americans during the 19th century – he climbed from obscurity to political prominence in a few short years, only to disappear from public view as Southern legislatures slammed shut the window of opportunity for black citizens, stripping them of voting rights and other liberties for many decades.
Early years in North Carolina
Thomas Sykes, who would become one of Nashville’s most powerful and respected African American political leaders during the final decades of the 19th century, began his life as a slave in North Carolina between 1835 and 1840. In an 1882 article in the Daily American (reprinted from the Washington Republican), Sykes reflected on his early years:
While [he was] a slave, a little girl, one Sunday, asked him to get her a watermellon [sic]. He proposed that she should teach him the alphabet, and he would pay her a sixpence for her services. After toiling through that sum- mer Sunday afternoon, at night he found himself master of those magical letters. The shop where he worked as a cabinet maker was near his master’s house. Through a hole in the shop that he made by punching out a knot he could command a view of his master sitting at his meals. With one eye on the knothole and the other on his book, he prosecuted his early studies.
The 1870 census described Sykes as a 35-year-old mulatto male, born in North Carolina, and living in Pasquotank County, on the state’s northeastern coastal plain. The entry listed his occupation as “Representative” and recorded the value of his personal property as $1,000, a considerable amount for the period. The Pasquotank County Board of County Commissioners had mentioned “T. Sykes’ Work-shop” in an 1868 document, so, as Ballou suggests, Thomas may have operated a “mechanical or carpentry shop” prior to his legislative service. His family at this time included wife Martha (27), “keeping house”; Jane Sykes (59), Thomas’s widowed mother, also “keeping house”; and two young daughters, C. J. (age 10) and E. C. (three months). The record declared that the family members other than Jane “cannot read” and “cannot write.” That statement seems improbable since Thomas, who claimed to have learned to read during slavery, was serving in the state House of Representatives, had written several pieces of legislation, and soon became a customs officer responsible for inspecting and weighing shipping containers and maintaining tax records. Furthermore, he was a nationally respected speaker. Several examples of his elegant prose have survived – there is no question that he was well educated. Pasquotank’s proximity to shipping routes suggests that Thomas may already have been working for the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the federal agency that would shortly bring him to Tennessee.
Political activities in North Carolina
T. A. Sykes was a member of the first Republican state convention in North Carolina, and he served as a member of the State Executive Committee of the Republican party from its inception until his move to Tennessee.
According to several 1869 news articles in the North Carolinian, a Pasquotank County newspaper, Sykes played an active role in the political schemes of both county and district politics during the Constitutional Convention. The Convention set standards for election: each candidate for one of the 120 seats in the legislature had to meet a number of conditions, including being a qualified elector and a resident of his county for at least one year. Some members had wanted to keep the name, “House of Commons,” for the legislative body, but the majority chose to call it the General Assembly.
According to North Carolina historian Leonard E. Ballou, Sykes was elected to five one-year terms in the North Carolina legislature – July-August 1868 (first taking his seat on July 1, 1868), 1868-1869, 1869-1870, 1870-1871, and 1871-1872. In fact, 1868 was the year the first African Americans were elected to the state Assembly – 15 Representatives and 2 Senators. In a startling parallel to similar events in Tennessee history, after Democrats took back power in the early 1890s, no African American was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly until Democrat Henry Frye won a seat in 1968.
Sykes was appointed to three legislative committees: the joint committee on “removal of disabilities from citizens of North Carolina,” which monitored Congressional limitations imposed on former Confederates running for political office; the committee on privileges and elections; and the joint committee on public buildings and grounds. Thomas Sykes also introduced a number of bills, several of which became law. Perhaps his most memorable moment in office, however, occurred on his second day, when the House voted 82-19 to approve the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Senate followed suit the same afternoon, voting 35-2 for approval.
In February of 1872 Sykes was one of several political leaders from across the country who addressed “a mass meeting of colored citizens” at Union League Hall in Washington, D.C. Those present passed several resolutions thanking politicians who had supported equal rights and demanding bills “like unto the one presented by the Hon. Charles Sumner in the Senate, designed to protect us from outrage and insult by common carriers, in inns, in common schools, and in courts of justice,” and other legislation intended to protect the civil rights of all Americans, black and white. The bill introduced by Senator Sumner was one of the first efforts to strike down the various Jim Crow laws. African American legislators in general assemblies across the South would present similar bills for years in a fruitless attempt to remove such restrictive legislation, including Tennessee’s Chapter 130 (1875). The assembly in Washington, D.C., marked Thomas Sykes’s first appearance on the national stage.
Sykes’s name appeared on the March 20, 1872, Pasquotank loyalty declaration of one James A. Woodard, who stated, “that he did not voluntarily serve in the Confederate army or navy, either as an officer, soldier, or sailor, or in any other capacity, at any time during the late rebellion; that he never voluntarily furnished any stores, supplies, or other material aid to said Confederate army or navy, or to the Confederate government, or to any officer, department of adherent of the same to support thereof, and that he never voluntarily accepted or exercised the functions of any office whatsoever under, or yielded voluntary support to, the said Confederate government.” The two witnesses attesting to Woodard’s loyalty were William E. Bond, Edenton, Chowan County, North Carolina, and Thomas A. Sykes, Elizabeth City, Pasquotank County, North Carolina. In June Sykes’s name appeared on a list of representatives to the 1872 Republican National Convention, which nominated Grant for a second term, with Henry Wilson of Massachusetts as Vice President.
The move to Nashville and an Internal Revenue post
In late 1872 Sykes moved his household to Nashville. On December 19 he opened an account with the Freedman’s Bank, his application providing quite a bit of information about his family. Born in North Carolina, he was the son of Armistead and Jane Sykes. He and his wife Martha had two daughters, Mary and Emma. His residence that year was at the Harding House, a boarding house owned by Sampson Keeble.
Sources say Sykes came to Tennessee “with high revenue officials” to work as an Internal Revenue collector. At least twice he was elected or appointed to terms as a “gauger,” the title given to a revenue officer who inspected the contents of casks or bulk goods in order to determine duty. He and fellow Nashvillian James Napier, who eventually became a federal official, traded the job back and forth over a period of several years; the position was still held by an African American named Manson as late as 1890. Any position working with scales or other scientific instruments during that period was considered highly sophisticated work, so Sykes must have been fairly well educated in order even to qualify for the job. He also, along with former state representative Sampson W. Keeble, Tennessee’s first black legislator (1873), held the post of Davidson County magistrate for several years at the end of the 1870s.
The name of Thomas Sykes first appeared in the Nashville city directory in 1873, the same year Sampson Keeble represented Davidson County in the Tennessee House. The entry identified Sykes as an assistant assessor for the Internal Revenue Service at 67½ North Cherry (today’s 4th Avenue). He was still boarding at Harding House, managed during that period by Keeble himself. Harding House was located at 166 Cherry Street, where the Ryman Auditorium would spring up in 1892. Directory entries from this period did not list family members, so we cannot tell who was living with Thomas in Nashville; his own name did not appear again until 1877, although the dearth of directory entries does not mean he had left the city – it is not uncommon to find gaps in the entries from year to year.
Active in local politics
During the 1870s Thomas Sykes began to take an active role in local politics. Among other things, he was a Davidson County delegate to the 1875 State Colored Men’s Convention, where this emergent voting bloc developed its political voice and shaped its vision. Sykes was also involved in a reform movement against Thomas A. Kercheval’s Republican political machine. (Kercheval was mayor of Nashville in the years 1871-1874, 1875-1883, and 1886-1888.) Sykes and other black leaders, including city councilman James C. Napier, preacher George W. Bryant, and attorney William H. Young, allied themselves with white reformers to elect a slate of candidates that would eventually break the grip of the Kercheval organization on local politics. The coalition made significant progress, seeing many of their number elected to office and increasing the number of African American workers in a variety of city jobs, from construction workers to fire captains. Sykes himself was elected a member of the county court. Praising the gains made by the reform government, Sykes told the Nashville American the new administration was “the best form of city government we have ever had. . . . The colored man who would go back on all that ought to hold his head down in shame.” In his book Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890, Howard Rabinowitz calls Sykes and J. C. Napier “Nashville’s two most important black politicians,” but points out that the two were constantly at odds, probably because of their ongoing competition for the few patronage positions available to African Americans in a political world still strongly controlled by whites.
On September 19, 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881), making the first presidential visit to the South since the Civil War, arrived in Nashville to lay the cornerstone of the new Customs House. The building, still a Broadway landmark today, opened in 1882. (Hayes, who was a strong advocate of education, made many trips to Nashville after his single term in office, working with the State Board of Education and the Peabody Fund to help develop higher education in the South for both black and white students.) Sykes was one of the prominent African Americans invited to a reception for Hayes during the dedication of the new building. The Customs House would eventually become the home of the Revenue Department.
In 1877 Thomas Sykes was still working as a “U.S. Gauger,” living on West Church Street (10th District). That year’s city directory was the first to identify African American citizens with a (c) for “colored.” Sykes’s entry in the 1878 Marshall & Bruce Directory reads, “Sykes Thomas A, (c) (Bosley & Sykes,) H Harding Pike 1½ miles,” and the listing for the firm says, “Bosley & Sykes, (J.B. Bosley & T A Sykes) Henry Harding agent, house furnishing goods 116 N Cherry.” Sykes apparently continued to work at his old Revenue position at the same time. The 1878 entry in Tavel, Eastman, & Howe, a competing directory, reads, “Sykes Thomas A., c (Bosley & Sykes) and U.S. gauger, r Church, 13th District. J. B. Bosley himself was involved in politics. He was the Greenback Party candidate for state representative in 1880 and continued to be active in local politics for many years. By the time of the 1880 census Thomas A. Sykes, 45, was head of a household on State Street in Nashville. [The Nashville City Directory for that year said his home was “Church nr Douglass av.] The census gave his marital status as “married,” although his family was not living with him – a young black couple in their 20s boarded in the house: Thomas Underwood was a saloonkeeper, and his wife Elizabeth was listed as housekeeper, perhaps for the entire residence. There is no mention of Martha and the girls after the move to Nashville. City death records list a Martha E. Sykes, October 4, 1880, in Nashville’s Seventh Ward, but the entry states that she was white. A Jane Sykes, possibly Thomas’s mother but also identified as white, died on November 16, 1882. By 1885 Thomas was married to schoolteacher Viola Hoyt.
Election to the Tennessee General Assembly
The decade of the 1880s ushered in a busy and productive time for African Americans in Davidson County. In September 1880 Sykes was a delegate to the Republican National Convention; two months later he was elected to the 42nd General Assembly, representing Davidson County. The only African American elected that term from a county in which the white population exceeded the black, he carried all the Negro wards. However, the fact that he received many fewer votes than other Republicans on the ballot indicated that reluctant white voters must have crossed out his name. A Banner editor took these voters to task in a scathing editorial: “Colored men would do well to note the fact that Sykes, one of the representatives-elect on the Republican ticket, fell behind over one hundred votes. Sykes has been for many years a gauger under governmental appointment, bears an excellent character, is a fluent speaker, and gentlemanly in his bearing, but the few white Republicans scratched him. They could never get into power except by Negro votes, but cannot condescend to vote for the colored man. Will the colored race ever open their eyes to the hypocrisy practiced upon them?”
During the 42nd legislative session, Sykes introduced five important bills. His effort to repeal Chapter 130 of the Acts of 1875 was the first of four attempts by black legislators to overturn a Jim Crow law allowing discrimination by hotels, railroads, and theaters. The bill failed, was briefly revived, and failed a second time, even though it received a simple (although not constitutional) majority. Sykes and his fellow black legislators (Boyd, Cassels, and Norris) promptly presented a formal complaint, calling Chapter 130 “A palpable violation of the spirit, genius and letter of our system of free government.” Sykes’s next bill, recommending that the state build a penitentiary in West Tennessee, was amended to the point of becoming unrecognizable. In the end he voted against it himself. When this patchwork bill passed its third reading by a vote of 41-20, Sykes himself pleaded (unsuccessfully) for the vote to be reconsidered. His third bill, admitting black students into the School for the Blind in Nashville and the School for the Deaf and Dumb in Knoxville, to be housed in segregated facilities, passed 59-1, even though the Civil Rights Act of 1875, still in force, made such segregation illegal. Despite their opposition to segregation in transportation and public facilities, black leaders rarely challenged the traditional segregation of educational or medical institutions, evidently preferring separate (and often inferior) facilities to none at all – all four African Americans voted in favor of this bill. Sykes’s two other bills, to ban discrimination against blacks in jury selection and to admit black students to the University of Tennessee, were tabled in committee and never came to a vote.
In 1878 T. A. Sykes and S. W. Keeble were two of four African American magistrates listed in the Nashville city directory, Sykes serving the Tenth District, and Keeble, along with R. L. Knowles, in the First; William A. Hadley also served as a magistrate, for the Thirteenth District.
State and local politics and temperance activities
Sykes did not pursue a second term in the General Assembly, although he continued to play a leading role in Nashville political and social life. In the 1882 city directory, Thomas Sykes (c), living at 730 Church, was working as a porter. He attended the 1884 Tennessee Convention, at which, as the New York Globe wrote on March 15, “Most of the prominent colored men of the State were present,” including his fellow legislators Thomas F. Cassels (elected chairman of the convention), Samuel A. McElwee (elected secretary), and Isham F. Norris. The group issued a number of resolutions on various issues, including jury selection, lynching, and persistent prejudice against blacks.
An 1885 news article described Sykes as “one of the most highly educated and refined colored men we know,” as well as “a very conservative and practical man.” He delivered a speech in Franklin urging his fellow African Americans to “aspire to and attain higher ends and accomplishments . . . [to] educate themselves and their children, procure homes and beautify them and make them comfortable, accumulate property, cultivate good manners and most kindly feelings with the white race, . . . to be law-abiding and virtuous, and thus raise themselves to the place of higher respectability and citizenship.”
Another news article from the same year reported on a lecture, “The Progress of the Negro Race,” which Sykes had delivered to a mixed audience in Murfreesboro. The speech, over-flowing with statistics, was described as “elegant” and characterized by “simplicity and hard, common-sense truths.” The report went on:
He showed that the negroes had made rapid progress during his twenty years of existence as a freeman both politically, educationally, and in the acquisition of wealth and property, as the statistics, as quoted by him, will prove. He states that there are in attendance at the public schools in the South 883,282 colored children, of these, 62,343 attend the public schools of Tennessee. That 1,000,000 negroes have learned to read and write since the war. That there are in the Methodist and Baptist Churches, alone, of the United States, 2,000,000 Negro members. As a proof of their financial growth, he stated the negroes in this country own 500,000 acres of land. . . . that they are indebted to no party for the immunities which they as citizens enjoy. For these rights they have paid dearly with their blood, and it is to their interest to so vote that these rights be eternally preserved, let it be for Republican or Democrat.
Sykes was quite prominent in the Temperance movement, serving on the State Temperance Executive Committee and receiving frequent invitations to speak to both black and white audiences on the subject. He joined J. C. Napier, Henry Harding, and S. R. Harding in an 1883 meeting of the Committee on Resolutions called to pursue the hiring of black teachers in the city schools. He was a guest at an 1885 banquet for educator, attorney, and future Virginia Congressman John Mercer Langston, and he was described as one of “the elite of colored society,” invited to events all over the city. His name frequently appeared in the paper as an “eloquent” guest speaker at events throughout the state, often in the cause of temperance, and he and his wife Viola, née Hoyt, a teacher at the McKee School, could be found on the social pages with great frequency. In 1886 they hosted the Honorable John Mercer Langston at a banquet in their Church Street home. Viola H. Sykes had her own listing in the Nashville City Directory that year.
The Tennessee Industrial School
By 1887 he had been named Assistant Superintendent in charge of the Colored Department of the new Tennessee Industrial School in Nashville, having been described as “the leading spirit” in the movement to establish a school of this type in Nashville. The school, conceived by Judge John C. Ferris in the wake of the 1873 cholera epidemic that orphaned scores of children, was built with the help of railroad tycoon Col. Edmund W. (“King”) Cole and others. Some of the leading African American residents of Nashville supported the school: Samuel A. McElwee, J. C. Napier, Dr. R. H. Boyd, Dr. Evans Tyree, Preston Taylor, and others. Originally called the Randall Cole Industrial School in honor of Cole’s son, who had died in a railroad accident, it was soon renamed the Tennessee Industrial School, established “for the benefit of orphan, helpless and wayward children.” The school opened on April 22, 1887, with 14 white and three black children, aged 8-19, and it filled rapidly. Most of the children (boys only, at first, but girls were admitted later) were orphans or the children of single parents. As Tyree says, “The children of the white and colored races who were committed to the institution were to be kept entirely separate and apart from each other in every way, and they were not to be associated together on any pretense whatever. . . . The problems arising from the segregation of the races pointed out the impracticability, and the department for colored children was soon discontinued.” Sykes’s contribution to the 1888 Biennial Report to the Board was unexpectedly affectionate:
As you know, gentlemen, the boys who are brought to this department are, with a very few exceptions, taken from among the less fortunate of the race, children who, from their earliest childhood, have had no moral training, have never known the meaning of the word home. The street has ever been the dearest spot on earth to them. One would naturally suppose that children who had come up under such influences as these would be vicious & hard to controll [sic]. But not so. These boys are from the first obedient, very tractable, respectful to their superiors, & as easily influenced for good as they were for bad. They seldom quarrel with each other, and rarely ever do we find it necessary to punish one for fighting. They love school, learn remarkably fast, and there is nothing they like so well as being read to. . . . The children go to bed early & get up early; eat as much wholesome food as they need; study, work, & have sufficient time in which to play. They are, therefore, robust & healthy. A remarkable fact is that we have never had a serious case of sickness among our boys. The children have learned to cook, wash, iron, & sew, also to farm and garden. They do all their own work, and do it cheerfully and well.
After the last black legislators ended their terms in 1888, lawmakers began to produce a series of laws intended to eradicate as many as possible of the gains made by African Americans during and after Reconstruction. The final City Directory entries for Thomas Sykes appear in 1890 and 1893. According to the first, he and his wife Viola H., a teacher, were living at 1901 Church Street. This is the first record of a spouse since first wife Martha’s name appeared in the 1870 census. It is not known whether Sykes married Viola in North Carolina or Tennessee – no Tennessee marriage records have been located. He was working at the Customs House, although his occupation was not specified. Viola was listed as a teacher at the Meigs School (1888-89) and the Granny White Pike School (1890-91). An 1887 news note in the Cleveland (Ohio) Gazette said, “Mrs. Sykes is a teacher in the high school at Nashville. She is an accomplished lady, a fine singer, and will take a part in the farewell concert to ‘Old Mt. Zion’ the 18th and 19th.”
Sykes’s career after 1890 may be viewed as an unsettling illustration of the effects of the Jim Crow laws on the lives of Southern blacks. The 46th General Assembly, in the first all-white session in eight years, passed four disfranchising laws that effectively silenced black political voices in Tennessee. In 1890 a political pundit, writing in the Nashville Daily American, made a joke of the fact that former State Representative Thomas A. Sykes, ten years after his election to the Tennessee General Assembly, had been demoted to elevator operator in the same Federal Customs House where he had once held a privileged federal position. A January 1891 article in the Freeman said he was “in the North appealing to the people for aid in establishing an industrial school in Tennessee. Perhaps, having seen the widespread need for homes and training for black youth, and disappointed by their second-class status at the Tennessee Industrial School, he wanted to open a facility exclusively for African American children.
A few months later (April 24, 1891), Davidson County Court records show that Sykes had filed a petition for divorce from Viola. The case was intensely hostile and very public. He sued her for adultery; she countersued, accusing him of abuse. The court agreed with her:
Upon the pleadings and the proof introduced on the hearing ... it appeared to the Court that defendant [Thomas] has failed to prove the allegations of his cross-bill, and the same is dismissed. And it is further appearing to the Court that the allegations in complainant’s bill are true, and that the defendant has been guilty of such cruelty and such indignities towards the Complainant as to render it improper and unsafe for her to longer cohabit with him, and to remain under his dominion and control. It is therefore ordered, adjudged and decreed by the Court that the bonds of matrimony subsisting between Complainant and Defendant be dissolved and that Complt. be restored to her maiden name Viola E. Hoyt.
An 1891 enumeration of male voters in Tennessee lists “Sykes, T. A.,” Davidson County Ninth Ward, age 52, colored. The 1893 City Directory showed Thomas Sykes to be living alone in a Nashville boarding house. In September 1899 a Freeman article described the two-year-old Orphanage Industrial School and Old Folk Home of Tennessee and listed its managers, who included the most important African American businessmen, attorneys, publishers and educators in Nashville: J. C. Napier, S. A. McElwee, Dr. H. F. Noel, Dr. R. H. Boyd, Dr. Evans Tyree, Dr. Preston Taylor, and many others. The name of Thomas Sykes did not appear.
Since the name of Thomas Sykes cannot be found in Nashville death records, there is some possibility that he may have moved back to North Carolina during the late 1890s. A 1918 article in the Charlotte Observer referring to a Knights of Pythias convention in Wilmington lists a “T. A. Sykes” among those attending from Charlotte. KBL 11/06/2012