Lowery, Samuel R.
Samuel R. Lowery
Samuel R. Lowery was born approximately thirty 'years before the outbreak of the Civil War, but, unlike many other blacks of his time, he was never a slave. Lowery, though a free man at birth, did not fully escape the prejudice, discrimination, and neglect that most of his fellow blacks endured. In the 1884 World Exposition in New Orleans, for example, Lowery entered his mulberry leaves (food for silkworms) in the competition. His rival from France received $1,000 to produce an exhibit. Lowery, who received no such aid, had to pay for and construct his own exhibit. Despite this handicap, Lowery won the competition. His mulberry leaves were the largest. Not only that, they far surpassed the competition in usefulness, since they stimulated, on site, the growth of 100,000 worms and cocoons, while the competition failed to generate any. Not all Lowery's experiences of discrimination ended in triumph, however. After the Civil War, for example, the school he had established in Rutherford County, Tennessee, near where he had studied law, was completely destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan.
Although Lowery did suffer from discrimination because of his skin color, his mother, Ruth Mitchell, was actually a Cherokee Indian. She had purchased the freedom of the slave Peter Lowery, Samuel's father, and was thus responsible for Samuel's being born free. She had freed not one man, but two. Lowery was born on December 9, 1832 in Davidson County (near Nashville), Tennessee. Unfortunately, his mother died in 1840, when he was only eight. His father worked at various times as a hack driver, a farmer, a livery stable operator, and a janitor at Franklin College. It was at Franklin that Samuel was able to study for the ministry, in classes separate from the white students.
Lowery began his preaching career in 1849 at Nashville's Church of the Disciples, where he remained until 1857. At that time, prior to the Civil War, during Lincoln's 1856 election campaign, great unrest broke out over the issue of slavery, causing the less fortunate whites, especially, to resent the wealthier, free blacks and to attack their businesses and force the closing of free black schools. In Nashville, twenty-four free blacks were jailed, though they were later released. In 1856, both Lowery and his father decided to flee to the North.
Lowery married Adora Robinson in 1858. The couple had two children, Ruth and Annie. In 1859, Lowery moved to Canada, where he stayed for three years, avoiding the racial turbulence in the United States during that time. In Canada he established Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ). The Lowerys' flight north to free regions was part of that large and continuing pattern of migration by blacks seeking freedom. Many blacks felt that there was less racial prejudice in Canada.
Returning to the United States around 1862, Lowery and his family settled on a farm his father had given him in Fayette County, Ohio. In 1863, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lowery returned to Nashville, where he preached and attended to the spiritual needs of free men and the soldiers of the Fortieth U.S. Colored Troops under the command of Colonel R. K. Crawford. Later, after losing his bid to be chaplain to that unit, Lowery was attached to the Ninth U. S. Heavy Artillery as chaplain. He also taught basic educational skills to soldiers of the Second U. S. Colored Light Artillery.
- Born in Davidson County (near Nashville), Tennessee on December 9
- Free Cherokee mother, Ruth Mitchell, dies
- Becomes minister at Nashville's Church of the Disciples
- Leaves Nashville to avoid race riots
- Marries Adora Robinson
- Organizes Christian Churches in Canada
- Returns to the United States, settling in Fayette County, Ohio
- Begins law studies around this time in Rutherford County, Tennessee
- Founds the Tennessee Manual Labor University with his father
- Moves to Huntsville, Alabama; establishes cooperative community, Loweryvale, in Jefferson County; establishes S. R. and R. M. Lowery Silk Culture and Manufacturing Company
- Gains admission to practice law before the United States Supreme Court
- Wins first prize for silk at the World's Fair
- Dies in Loweryvale, Alabama, at his own cooperative community
Pursues Interest in Law
After the war, Lowery settled with his family in Nashville, where he felt called to teach and preach—and to undertake a new career. He soon began to study law in Rutherford County with a white attorney, and subsequently he established his own practice. Lowery's interest in law may have begun much earlier, since an 1850 letter of legal advice from Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer then himself, is addressed to "Samuel R. Lowry." Lincoln's letter apparently advises Lowery on the lack of real estate rights by occupants being evicted from a residence. At the time Lowery himself began to practice law, he was also active in several organizations, such as the State Colored Men's Convention, the National Emigration Society, and the Tennessee State Equal Rights League. In 1875, after the closing of a school he ran in Nashville, he moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where he continued his law practice and his preaching. His eventual success as lawyer was such that on February 2, 1880, Lowery was nominated by Belva Lockwood to practice law before the U. S. Supreme Court. Lowery has the distinction of being the first African American to earn this honor.
On December 10, 1867, prior to his Alabama move and long before the Supreme Court event, Lowery and his father had established the Tennessee Manual Labor University. The school was located on Murfreesboro Road in Smyrna, Tennessee, near the black settlement Ebenezor. Like the Franklin College where both Lowerys had studied, the newly founded school was designed to provide its students with basic knowledge in agriculture, mechanical arts, and Christian ethics, all practical knowledge that would allow the freedmen to thrive in their new and changing environment. To support the school, Lowery traveled frequently to raise funds in various communities. Unfortunately, a scandal arose concerning money related to a fundraising trip for the university, a trip undertaken by the Reverends Lowery and Wadkins. The fault in the scandal was not Lowery's, however. Wadkins raised $1,632, but appropriated all but $200 for expenses. Although Wadkins was the culprit, Lowery, head of the school, received the blame. The white Christian Church excommunicated Lowery and withheld crucial support, resulting in the school's closing in 1872.
Establishes Loweryvale Community
After moving to Huntsville, Alabama in 1875, Lowery undertook several projects, including the establishment of a cooperative community, Loweryvale, in Jefferson County and the editing of the Southern Freeman. Most notably, he founded three new enterprises. One was Lowery's Industrial Academy, founded on the same principles as the earlier Nashville school and established to provide training in silk production. It was allied with the two other business enterprises, the Birmingham Silk Company (founded with the backing of several business leaders), and the S. R. and R. M. Lowery Silk Culture and Manufacturing Company. Lowery's daughter Ruth, who died in 1877, just two years after the company began, was the "R. M." of the company name. It was Ruth who first grew interested in silkworm culture, when she visited an exhibit dedicated to it. Her father bought her some worm eggs at the exhibit, which she carried home and fed on mulberry leaves. His daughter's project sparked Lowery's own interest in silkworm cultivation, and he began to see its business potential. Her interest in and expertise with silkworm growing had both inspired her father and provided him an outlet when he became discouraged with politics. The daughter's death did not dampen Lowery's devotion to her dream of silk production. In fact, following Ruth's death, Lowery visited two notable silkworm growers, John Kyle of New Jersey and Fred Cheney of Connecticut. Kyle was the first successful silk manufacturer in the United States, and Cheney was the biggest grower of silkworms in the country. Both urged Lowery to begin work in the business, and Cheney predicted he would succeed within ten years.
Prospers with Silkworm Cultivation
Lowery, because of his industry and knowledge, was given forty acres of land near Birmingham to develop the silkworm enterprise. After the meeting with Kyle and Cheney, he returned to Alabama, ordered French mulberry seeds, and started a hardy stand of trees, trees that produced the world's largest mulberry leaves. Lowery, carrying before him the vision of his daughter's work with silkworm cultivation and silk production, threw himself into the project. He viewed the silk industry as the successor to cotton for American blacks, offering a profitable income, better working conditions, and shorter hours. He envisioned that the new industry would provide more refined employment for black women and children. He died in Loweryvale, Alabama in 1900.
The Reverend William J. Simmons, a friend and contemporary, in 1886 described Lowery as "an intelligent, conservative man, steadily refusing to mix up in any way with the disturbing element of his race." Simmons also quotes Lowery as saying, "Hope is a large faculty in my organization. I have tried to abandon it and become indifferent to its inviting fields. When I do, I am really not myself; yet I know I do not hope vainly or recklessly." Simmons remarked that Lowery "constantly devotes his time to the advancement of the colored people of the South." Indeed, though Lowery's career was quite varied, a consistent theme and preoccupation sustained him. As educator and editor, he aimed to elevate the abilities and aspirations of his race. As lawyer, he sought to defend their interests. As preacher, he ministered to their spirit. As entrepreneur, he worked to provide opportunity for a better economic future for them. At the core of Lowery's efforts was the deeply felt desire to improve conditions for black Americans.
Childs, John Brown. The Political Black Minister: A Study in Afro-American Politics and Religion. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1980.
Simmons, William J. Men of Mark: A Eminent, Progressive and Rising. Cleveland, Ohio: Geo. M. Rewell & Co., 1887. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/simmons/simmons.html (Accessed 13 March 2006).
Lois A. Peterson