Ford, Harold, Sr.

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Harold Ford, Sr.


Harold Eugene Ford Sr. was the first African American to represent a Tennessee district in the U.S. Congress. Elected to the Congress in 1974 from Tennessee's Ninth Congressional District, which comprises the city of Memphis, he served the district for twelve consecutive terms until he retired in 1996 and was succeeded by his son Harold E. Ford Jr.

Family Background

Ford was one of fifteen children born to Newton Jackson and Vera Davis Ford. Ford's father was the director of the N. J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home, which was founded by his grandfather on Beale Street. However, his grandfather only worked in the business for six months before his death. Refusing to let the business close, Newton took over the operation at age seventeen. It developed into one of the best known funeral homes in the Memphis African American community. In addition to working in the funeral business, for a brief period the elder Ford worked as a keeper of the Peabody Hotel's famous ducks, which into the early 2000s continued to be marched ceremoniously from the hotel's rooftop to the lobby fountain. It was during his stint at the Peabody that Newton met Vera Davis, who also worked at the hotel. Reared in modest circumstances, the Ford children attended the Ford Chapel AME Zion Church, named for their great-grandfather, Newton F Ford, who donated the land. After making the funeral home into a successful business, Newton Ford moved his family to the suburbs of Memphis.

In 1966, Newton Ford unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives. Two years after his unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Tennessee General Assembly, Vera was named Delta Sigma Theta's Mother of the Year for Tennessee and was first runner-up for the national title. All of the Ford's surviving twelve children earned their undergraduate degrees, primarily from the state's historically black public institution of higher education now known as Tennessee State University. Inspired by their father's encouragement, several of the Ford children entered politics.

Harold Eugene Ford was born in Memphis, Tennessee on May 20, 1945. He received his primary and secondary education in the schools of Shelby County and graduated from Geeter High School (which was named after the parents of Ophelia Edna Geeter Ford, the mother of Newton J. Ford) in 1963. After graduating from high school, Ford entered Tennessee State Agriculture and Industrial University (now Tennessee State University) where he earned his undergraduate degree in business administration in 1967. A year later, he received the A.A. degree in mortuary science from Nashville's John A. Gupton College of Mortuary Science. In 1969, he joined his family's funeral business as a vice president and manager and became involved in politics. The same year that he joined the family business, Ford married Dorothy Jean Bowles on February 10, and they became the parents of three sons, Harold Eugene Jr., Newton Jake, and Sir Isaac Ford. In 1970, he entered politics as a Democrat and ran for a seat in the Tennessee General Assembly's House of Representatives.

Elected to Political Office

Elected as a Democrat to the state House of Representatives in 1970, Ford served in the 87th and 88th General Assemblies, representing Shelby County's District Five and then House District 86 until 1975. During his first term in Tennessee's House of Representatives, he chaired a panel looking at utility rates and spoke against excessive late charges. In 1972, Ford was a delegate to the Tennessee State Democratic convention and to the national Democratic convention. After he served two terms, Ford's work in the Tennessee General Assembly and the nation's grappling with the Watergate scandal and improprieties within the Nixon administration emboldened Ford to seek election to the U.S. Congress against Dan Kuykendall, a four-term Republican incumbent, who had successfully defeated four opponents in the Republican primary. In addition, the 1972 redistricting gave the district a larger proportion of African American voters than in previous elections, and many political forecasters believed that the district would not remain Republican. Ford waged a tenacious get-out-the-vote campaign in the African American community. He ran on issues relating to education, fair housing, higher minimum wages, Social Security reform, and fair crime bills. At the same time, Ford went after the Republican incumbent as one with close ties to the previous Nixon administration. He also campaigned against the proposed five percent income tax surcharge recommended by President Gerald Ford. Although he received little help from most Democratic Party politicians, Ford was publicly endorsed by singer Isaac Hayes and Mayor Tom Bradley, an African American from Los Angeles. A month before the election, two white law enforcement officers of the Memphis Police Department beat and killed a young African American male. This ruthless killing and Ford's ceaseless get-out-the-vote campaign galvanized the African American community and ultimately aided Ford in his election bid for the U.S. Congress.


Born in Memphis, Tennessee on May 20
Graduates from Geeter High School
Earns B.S. from Tennessee State University
Attends graduate school, Tennessee State University
Receives A.A. in mortuary science from John Gupton College
Becomes vice president of Ford and Sons Funeral Home; wins a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives, where he serves until 1974
Becomes delegate to Tennessee state Democratic convention; becomes delegate to Democratic national convention
Defeats Republican incumbent Dan Kuykendall
Earns M.B.A. from Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Named Child Advocate of the Year by Child Welfare League of America
Indicted on bank fraud charges; proceedings end in mistrial
Acquitted of charges
Leaves the U.S. Congress; goes into private consulting

Tennessee's First African American Elected to Congress

On November 5, 1974, at age twenty-nine, Harold E. Ford Sr. became the first African American elected to the U.S. Congress from Tennessee. He defeated U.S. representative Kuykendall for the Eighth Congressional District, in a disputed and drama-filled election. Before Ford was declared the winner by a mere 574-vote margin, Ford's opponent appeared on WREC-TV and claimed victory, only to be informed that his 5,000-vote margin had dissipated. Ford's people were monitoring the vote tally and did not believe the vote margin. By their calculations, Ford should have been ahead by 500 votes. He and some members of his campaign staff went to the Shelby County election office to confirm election returns. There, an African American election worker counseled Ford to check the basement for uncounted boxes. Taking the election worker's advice, Ford found six ballot boxes from predominately African American districts that had not been counted. He and his people watched as the votes were counted and turned the election in his favor by more than 500 votes.

After being informed of the 574—vote turnaround, Kuykendall, who had held the seat since 1967, wanted the election results investigated. An analysis of the results revealed several interesting factors that led to his defeat in addition to a number of ballot boxes in African American districts not being counted. An independent white candidate received 987 votes. There was a light turnout in the white districts, where he received 89 percent of the vote. Mixed districts gave Ford the edge, and he received 94 percent of the African American districts. Additionally, he received 47 percent of the working-class white vote. Kuykendall was not the only Republican to fall during the 1974 elections, as voters across the country registered their disapproval of the Republican Party as a result of the Watergate scandal.

Despite Kuykendall's protestations, Ford's slim election margin stood. After being certified, he went on to serve in the 94th Congress of the United States, thus becoming not only the first African American elected from Tennessee but also the first African American elected from the country's southeastern region in the twentieth century. He remained in Congress until 1996.

The same year that Ford was elected to the U.S. Congress, constituents elected his brothers, Emmitt and John Ford, to the Tennessee General Assembly. Emmitt won election to his brother's seat in the Tennessee General Assembly's lower chamber, and John won election to a Senate seat in that legislative body's upper chamber. The Fords were well on their way to creating a political dynasty. The year before being elected to the Congress, Ford and the entire family were honored by the Chicago Civic Liberty League for their contributions.

After he was sworn into the U.S. Congress, Harold Ford Sr. became one of the youngest members elected to the country's legislative branch of government. As a member of Congress, he served as a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means, which had jurisdiction over all tax and revenue-raising legislation, and on the Social Security and Medicare programs. Ford also served on the House Select Committee on Assassinations that investigated the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

During his next three elections (1976, 1978, and 1980), although he faced well-funded opponents, Ford easily won the bid to retain his seat in Congress, which because of redistricting became the Tennessee's Ninth Congressional District. In 1981, Ford became the chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources, which had jurisdiction over approximately $40 billion in programs, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Title XX and Supplementary Security Income under the Social Security Act, Child Welfare and Foster Care, Low Income Energy Assistance, and Unemployment Compensation Insurance. While serving in the Congress, Ford entered Howard University and earned an M.B.A. degree in business administration in 1982. During the same year, he faced opposition for his congressional seat from Minerva J. Johnican, a former school librarian, who had held a seat on the Shelby County Commission since 1975.

During the Reagan administration, Ford consistently opposed Reagan's attempt to dismantle social welfare programs. He advocated welfare reform, job training and assistance, and forcing parents to pay child support. In the mid-1980s, Ford became one of his party's principal proponents of welfare reform. Because of his leadership in designing a far-reaching welfare reform bill in 1987, the Child Welfare League of America named him Child Advocate of the Year.

Later that same year, House Speaker Jim Wright appointed Ford to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. He also served as a Democratic zone whip, representing the states of Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Never forgetting his constituents within the Ninth Congressional District, Ford was known for a wide range of services he provided to people within the district. He often reminded his congressional aids that his votes came from the district, not Washington.

Political Career Tarnished

While serving in the 100th Congress, Harold E. Ford Sr. was indicted with co-defendants Karl Schledwitz, David Beaty, and David Crabtree on nineteen counts of conspiracy, bank fraud, and mail fraud following the 1983 collapse of the Knoxville-based banking empire of brothers Jacob "Jake" Franklin and Cecil H. Butcher Jr., both of whom were convicted. Because of financial transactions between Ford and the Butcher brothers, prosecutors claimed that they were political bribes. Officials within the U.S. Department of Justice asserted that the secret deals dated back to 1976 and intimated that one 1978 transaction was as a payment to Ford for his endorsement of Jake Butcher in his Tennessee gubernatorial candidacy.

At first prosecuting attorneys scheduled congressman Ford's trial for the East Tennessee city of Knoxville, which was predominately white and predominately Republican. It was asserted by those associated with the Ford camp that the Knoxville site was representative of what some described as a Reagan administration political searching out and deliberate harassment of those on the opposite side of the aisle. Ford's attorneys were successful in gaining a change of venue from Knoxville to Memphis, his home base where the population was approximately 55 percent African American. Those conducting the court proceedings on behalf of the people felt that because of the defendant's political profile, along with that of his politically active family and the family's funeral home business, that it would be impossible to seat an impartial jury.

Congressman Ford's trial in Memphis federal court began on February 12, 1990 and ended with a deadlocked jury. The jury impaneled for his case consisted of eight African Americans, who voted to acquit, and four whites, who voted to convict the congressman. On April 27, 1990, U.S. District Judge Odell Horton declared a mistrial. It took three years before a second trial was scheduled. As in the first trial, prosecutors sought a change of venue. This time instead of seeking an East Tennessee venue, they asked that the trial be moved from Memphis to Jackson, which was still in the state's western division.

When the Jackson trial began in April 1993, Ford was hospitalized because of chest pains. The jury for this trial was composed of eleven white and one African American. This jury acquitted Harold E. Ford Sr. of all charges. He returned to Washington and resumed his chairmanship of the Ways and Means subcommittee and issues relating to welfare reform. Ford remained in Washington serving the constituents of Tennessee's Ninth Congressional District for another three years before resigning. He was succeeded by his son, Harold E. Ford Jr., who went on to assume his father's seat in Congress after the 1996 elections.

Memberships and Awards

Harold Ford Sr. was a member of the National Advisory Council of Saint Jude's Children's Research Hospital. He served on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Memphis Young Men's Christian Association. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., and chaired the Black Tennessee Political Convention. A member of Mount Moriah East Baptist Church, he was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Outstanding Young Man of the Year (1976) and the Tennessee Jaycees (1977).

After he retired from Congress, Harold Eugene Ford Sr. divided his time between homes in Miami and the Hamptons outside New York City. He also worked in his own consulting firm.



Brennan, Carol. "Harold E. Ford, Sr." Contemporary Black Biography, Vol. 16. Ed. Shirelle Phelps. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group, 1998.

Cornwell, Ilene J. Biographical Directory of the Tennessee General Assembly. Vol. 6, 1971–1991. Nashville: Tennessee Historical Commission. 1991.

Tennessee Blue Book, 1971–1972. Nashville: Secretary of State Office, 1972.


Baird, Woody. "Judge Declares Mistrial in Ford's Fraud Case." Nashville Banner, 28 April 1990.

Bradley, Carol. "Harassment and Black Politicians." Nashville Tennessean, 17 June 1990.

Daughtry, Larry. "Ford Trial to be a Saga of Race and Politics." Nashville Tennessean, 25 February 1990.

――――――. "Ford Trial Waits for Butcher to Hit Center Stage." Nashville Tennessean, 1 April 1990.

―――――― "Mistrial Ruled in Ford Case, Retry Vowed." Nashville Tennessean, 28 April 1990.

―――――― "Revisiting Old Butcher, Ford Alliance." Nashville Tennessean, 4 March 1990.

de la Cruz, Bonna. "The Fords of Memphis: Service and Scandal Define a Dynasty." Nashville Tennessean, 31 July 2005.

――――――. "Political Future of Fords Hinges on Constituents: Some Observers Wonder Whether Family Will Survive 'Waltz' Scandal." Nashville Tennessean, 1 August 2005.

Lewis, Dwight and Doug Hall. "State's First Black Elected to Congress." Nashville Tennessean, November 1974.

Pratt, James. "'Been Ready from Day One,' Ford Says as Trial Date Set." Nashville Tennessean, 13 September 1989.

Smith, M. Lee. "Memphis Venue Big Hurdle for U. S. in Ford Case." Nashville Banner, 20 February 1990.

                                      Linda T. Wynn