NPT’s ‘First Black Statesmen’ documentary featured in online screening event

NPT is hosting a unique way to see First Black Statesmen: Tennessee’s Self-Made Men, our latest history documentary. On Friday, March 25, at noon, viewers can watch the documentary via an online platform that allows for real-time conversation with panelists and other viewers in an adjacent window. The First Black Statesmen event will feature NPT’s Ed Jones, the documentary’s writer and producer, along with historian Kathy Lauder. Click this link to RSVP or participate in the screening.

This special online screening event comes after the documentary’s February 2016 broadcast premiere and well-received screening events at Baker Donelson and Nissan North America.


First Black Statesmen is the first of a planned series of NPT original documentaries called the Citizenship Project. First Black Statesmen tells the story of 14 men, 11 of whom who had been born into slavery, who defied the odds and rampant racism of the time, to become elected representatives in the Tennessee State Legislature between 1873 and 1896.

Though one of the men, Samuel McElwee, was nominated for the position of Speaker of the House during his second term – and a historical marker to him stands on Fisk University’s campus – the group had been largely forgotten until the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators requested a traveling exhibit. That’s when archivist Lauder began research that led to the rediscovery of this chapter of Tennessee history; the results of her efforts can be found on the website This Honorable Body.

Lauder has since retired from the Tennessee State Library and Archives, but the project remains an ongoing labor of love. She is one of the featured historians in First Black Statesmen, as are Linda T. Wynn of Tennessee Historical Commission, and retired Tennessee State University dean and history professor Dr. Bobby L. Lovett.

In the documentary, Lauder, Wynn and Lovett provide context for the men’s elections and present a picture of what life in office was like for them. Following Keeble’s term, tough laws were passed that some experts consider to be Tennessee’s first Jim Crow laws, according to Jones; these new restrictions made things even more difficult for Keeble’s successors. “They were already fighting a losing battle when they walked in,” Jones said. While their legislative accomplishments may have been few, these trailblazers fought for laws that would benefit their newly enfranchised supporters and help ease their path to full citizenship.

First Black Statesmen is also available for viewing online at

Citizenship Project logoAbout the Citizenship Project
The Citizenship Project is a new series of NPT original documentaries that will look at how different groups have fought for, obtained and maintained the rights and access we commonly associate with American citizenship.

These include the right to vote, the right to receive a public education, the right to be considered equal before the law, and the right to worship the religion of one’s choice. Over the course of the project, the programs will cover Tennessee history from the end of the Civil War through the 1960s, exploring civil rights and women’s suffrage among other topics.


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